Archive for the ‘Always wrong about everything all the time’ Category

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

April 6, 2014

In “Health Care Without End” The Pasty Little Putz babbles that Americans will still be arguing about Obamacare in 2030.  He’s wrong again, but that’s nothing new.  MoDo squeals “Bring Me My Dragons!”  She’s been watching TV again, and of course manages to get in her de rigeur slap at Obama.  Same old, same old…  In “Sheldon: Iran’s Best Friend” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us how Sheldon Adelson and Iran are both trying to destroy Israel.  Mr. Kristof tells us of a young woman with a lesson for graduates about the meaning of life in “Her First, And Last, Book.”  Mr. Bruni ponders “The New Gay Orthodoxy” and says the ouster of Mozilla’s chief executive suggests a shrinking room for debate.  Here’s The Putz:

So you think it’s finished? So you think now that enrollment has hit seven million, now that the president has declared the debate over repeal “over,” now that Republican predictions of a swift Obamacare unraveling look a bit like Republican predictions of a Romney landslide, we’re going to stop arguing about health care, stop having the issue dominate the conversation, and turn at last to some other debate instead?

You think it’s over? It’s never over.

I mean, O.K., it will be over in the event of a nuclear war, or a climate apocalypse, or if the robots eventually rise up and overthrow us. (Our capacity for self-destruction is a pre-existing condition that no insurance plan will touch.)

But for the foreseeable future, the health care debate probably isn’t going to get any less intense. Instead, what we’ve watched unfold since 2009 is what we should expect for years, decades, a generation: a grinding, exhausting argument over how to pay for health care in a society that’s growing older, consuming more care, and (especially if current secularizing trends persist) becoming more and more invested in postponing death.

In the near term, this debate will go on because Obamacare has stabilized itself without fully resolving any of its internal problems. The liberal victory lap last week was half-earned: It really was a victory, given the initial website catastrophe, to arrive at seven million enrolled, and that success almost certainly establishes a new coverage baseline for any future overhaul.

But that baseline won’t be anything like universal coverage, and it may fall short of universality by a much larger margin than the law’s supporters hoped. Around a million of the seven million probably won’t make their payments, and many had insurance previously. So even with the new Medicaid enrollees and the twentysomethings added to their parents’ plans, the number of newly insured could end up around three or four or even five million short of the 13 million that the Congressional Budget Office predicted for Obamacare’s first year.

At the same time, the law’s internal structure has been rendered extremely rickety by the administration’s attempts at damage control. Nobody knows what will happen with the various suspended and hollowed-out provisions — whether the employer mandate will ever take effect, whether the individual mandate will be enforced along the lines that its architects argued was necessary for the law to work. And nobody is sure what the pool of enrollees looks like (in terms of age and average health), and what it will mean for premiums next year and beyond.

These realities make it very likely that whatever position Republicans end up taking on a potential Obamacare replacement or reform, by the next presidential election there will be increasingly vocal Democratic constituencies for change — moderates who want to be seen as doing something about rate shock, and liberals looking for a reform (ahem, single payer) that doesn’t leave 30 million Americans uninsured.

Repeal may really be a dead letter, in other words, but don’t be surprised to wake up in 2020 to endless arguments about a reform of the reform of the reform.

And don’t be surprised, either, if the debate over Obamacare is merging, by then, into the yet-more-toxic argument about how to pay for Medicare.

The Medicare debate has been postponed, to some extent, by the recent fiscal consolidation and a slowdown in health care cost inflation. But inflation should rise again as the Obamacare money sluices into the system, and even with a lower rate it would be hard to envision a future for Medicare that doesn’t involve some combination of price controls, benefit reductions and tax increases — all on a much larger scale than the numbers involved in recent debates.

What’s more, the political salience of this debate will rise for the same reason that the costs of Medicare will be rising: because the country will be older over all, and health policy inevitably matters more to the old than to the young.

Which means that the future almost certainly holds more cries of “death panels,” more ads featuring Paul Ryan clones pushing seniors over a cliff, and no doubt as-yet-undreamt-of forms of demagogy. And it means, as well, that if it’s hard to get Washington to focus on other issues now — tax reform, education, family policy, you name it — just wait awhile: It will get much worse.

It’s important to note, of course, that this “worse” will be the result of betterment: our political debates will be consumed by health care because of all that medicine can do for us, and we’ll be arguing about how to sustain what earlier generations would have regarded as a golden age.

But there’s a reason that golden ages can diminish into twilight — because the demands of the present can crowd out the needs of the future, and because what’s required to preserve and sustain is often different, in the end, from what’s required to grow.

He’s such a putz, and so very, very, very predictable.  Now, FSM help us, here’s MoDo:

I’d been hoping to get the flu.

I hadn’t had it in years, and there were so many TV series I’d never seen — “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “House of Cards,” “True Detective” — that required an extended convalescence.

When I finally succumbed to a fever and crumpled in bed a couple of weeks ago with saltines and Gatorade, I grabbed the clicker, murmuring, “Alright, alright, alright.” The only celebrated series I had no interest in was “Game of Thrones.”

I’m not really a Middle-earth sort of girl.

I’d read about George R. R. Martin, the author of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the fantasy epic about a medieval-style land of Seven Kingdoms and beyond that is the basis of the HBO show. The bearded, portly 65-year-old, raised in Bayonne, N.J., and living in a modest house in Santa Fe, N.M., has been dubbed “the American Tolkien” by Time.

I had no interest in the murky male world of orcs, elves, hobbits, goblins and warrior dwarves. If I was going to watch a period drama, I usually favored ones with strong women in intriguing situations, like “Mad Men,” “The Americans” and “Masters of Sex.”

Besides, “Game of Thrones” sounded too dense and complicated for someone suffering from zombie brain.

How could I fathom the agendas and plotlines of all the plotting lords and ladies and whores and bastards and sellswords of Westeros when even Martin himself has had to sometimes check with one of his superfans to make sure he’s keeping the feuding factions straight?

A 2011 New Yorker profile described the nutty passion of Martin’s fans, how they mercilessly mock him on Web forums for not writing faster, and how they keep track of every word to the point where the author has become paranoid about mistakes, such as when a character’s eyes shift from green to blue.

“My fans point them out to me,” he told the magazine. “I have a horse that changes sex between books. He was a mare in one book and a stallion in the next, or something like that.” He added, “People are analyzing every goddamn line in these books, and if I make a mistake they’re going to nail me on it.”

But after I finished tromping around the bayou with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, I decided to watch one “Game of Thrones” to see what the fuss was about. It is not only the most pirated show on the Internet, but one of President Obama’s favorites — although he hasn’t picked up any good tips about ruthlessly wielding power, either from “Game” or from Maggie Smith’s Countess of Grantham on “Downton Abbey,” another show he raves about.

After a marathon of three seasons of “Game” and the beginning of the fourth, starting this Sunday, I’m ready to forgo reality for fantasy.

Who wants to cover Chris Christie’s petty little revenge schemes in New Jersey once you’ve seen the gory revenge grandeur of the Red Wedding?

Who wants to see W.’s portraits of leaders once you’re used to King Joffrey putting leaders’ heads on stakes?

Who wants to hear Hillary Clinton complain about a media double standard for women once you’ve gotten accustomed to the win-don’t-whine philosophy of Cersei, Daenerys, Melisandre, Margaery, Ygritte, Brienne and Arya? As it turns out, the show not only has its share of strong women, but plenty of lethal ones as well.

It all seems so tame and meaningless in Washington after Westeros. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul wouldn’t survive a fortnight in King’s Landing. Charles Dance’s icy Tywin Lannister, ruling over a kingdom more interested in dismemberment than disgruntled members, would have the Rains of Castamere playing as soon as he saw those pretenders to the throne. As for House Republicans, or should that be the House of Republicans, life would be mercifully short.

I fell so deeply into the brocaded, overripe, incestuous universe — dubbed “ ‘Sopranos’ meets Middle-earth” by showrunner David Benioff — I couldn’t climb out.

I fell hopelessly in love with Peter Dinklage’s sexy dwarf, who is a schemer but a noble one by Lannister standards.

When friends would ask me what they could get me in the way of sustenance while I was sick, I would yell: “BRING ME MY DRAGONS!”

I even toyed with the idea of getting the flying, fire-breathing dragon on the cover of the new Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. The description is irresistible: “This is the remote controlled jet-powered dragon that soars through the air at up to 70 m.p.h. and belches propane-powered flame when on the ground. Proving its prowess before takeoffs or after successful raids, the dragon’s LED eyes can be commanded to glow red while it emits a fiery 3-foot blast of flame from a cleverly concealed propane tank and igniter built into its toothy maw. A miniature turbine engine built into the beast’s chest provides thrust that exits the rear at 500 m.p.h., and uses 1/2 gallon of jet aircraft fuel or kerosene for 10 minute flights. With a head that swivels in the direction of turns, the dragon can climb and dive via wing ailerons and elevators built into its V-tail rudder.”

Of course, no one who knows me thinks I should be in possession of propane gas. And the other impediment to joy, and bar to being the khaleesi and mother of dragons, was the price tag: $60,000. As Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out in The New York Review of Books, “People often talk about Tolkien as Martin’s model, but the deep, Christianizing sentimentality of the worldview expressed in ‘Lord of the Rings’ is foreign to Martin, who has, if anything, a tart Thucycididean appreciation for the way in which political corruption can breed narrative corruption, too.”

Martin’s larger Hundred Years’ War theme echoes Shakespeare. As he has pointed out, “Believe me, the Starks and the Lannisters have nothing on the Capets and Plantagenets.” And as Mendelsohn writes, it is “the way in which the appetite for, and the use and abuse of, power fragments societies and individuals; in a world ruled by might, who is ‘right’?”

When a flattering adviser warns Cersei, the queen regent, that “knowledge is power,” she makes a feint

to cut the man’s throat and then informs him, “Power is power.”

In the new season, Tywin Lannister explains to his grandson what makes a bad king: spending all your time whoring, hunting and drinking; being so gullible you don’t recognize the evil around you; being so pious you fast yourself into an early grave; and assuming that winning and ruling are the same thing.

“A wise king knows what he knows and what he doesn’t,” Tywin explains to the boy. “You’re young. A wise young king listens to his councilors and heeds their advice until he comes of age. The wisest of kings continue to listen to them long afterwards.”

Words to die by.

Don’t ask me why she (or the Times) put in that paragraph break in the middle of a sentence…  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

It occurred to me the other day that the zealously pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, actually have one big thing in common. They are both trying to destroy Israel. Adelson is doing it by loving Israel to death and Khamenei by hating Israel to death. And now even Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey inadvertently got drawn into this craziness.

What’s the logic? Very simple. Iran’s leaders want Israel destroyed but have no desire, in my view, to use a nuclear bomb to do it. That would expose them to retaliation and sure death. Their real strategy is more subtle: Do everything possible to ensure that Israel remains in the “occupied territory,” as the U.S. State Department refers to the West Bank, won by Israel in the 1967 war. By supporting Palestinian militants dedicated to destroying any peace process, Tehran hopes to keep Israel permanently mired in the West Bank and occupying 2.7 million Palestinians, denying them any statehood and preventing the emergence of a Palestinian state that might recognize Israel and live in peace alongside it. The more Israel is stuck there, the more Palestinians and the world will demand a “one-state solution,” with Palestinians given the right to vote. The more Israel resists that, the more isolated it becomes.

Iran and its ally Hamas have plenty of evidence that this strategy is working: Israel’s 47-year-old occupation of the West Bank has led it to build more settlements there and in doing so make itself look like the most active colonial power on the planet today. The 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank reinforce that view by claiming their presence in the West Bank is not about security but a divinely inspired project to reunite the Jewish people with their biblical homeland.

The result is a growing movement on college campuses and in international organizations to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state because of this occupation. This “B.D.S. movement” — to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — is gaining adherents not only among non-Jews on American campuses but even within some Hillels, campus Jewish centers.

Iran could not be happier. The more Israel sinks into the West Bank, the more it is delegitimized and isolated, the more the world focuses on Israel’s colonialism rather than Iran’s nuclear enrichment, the more people call for a single democratic state in all of historic Palestine.

And now Iran has an ally: Sheldon Adelson — the foolhardy Las Vegas casino magnate and crude right-wing, pro-Israel extremist. Adelson gave away some $100 million in the last presidential campaign to fund Republican candidates, with several priorities in mind: that they delegitimize the Palestinians and that they avoid any reference to the West Bank as “occupied territories” and any notion that the U.S. should pressure Israel to trade land for peace there. Both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney took the money and played by Sheldon’s rules.

In case you missed it, the R.J.C., the Republican Jewish Coalition, held a retreat last weekend at an Adelson casino in Las Vegas. It was dubbed “the Sheldon Primary.” Republicans lined up to compete for Adelson’s blessing and money, or as Politico put it: “Adelson summoned [Jeb] Bush and Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin to Las Vegas. … The new big-money political landscape — in which a handful of donors can dramatically alter a campaign with just a check or two — explains both the eagerness of busy governors to make pilgrimages to Las Vegas, and the obsession with divining Adelson’s 2016 leanings.”

Adelson personifies everything that is poisoning our democracy and Israel’s today — swaggering oligarchs, using huge sums of money to try to bend each system to their will.

Christie, in his speech, referred to the West Bank as “occupied territories” — as any knowledgeable American leader would. This, Politico said, “set off murmurs in the crowd.” Some Republican Jews explained to Christie after he finished that he had made a terrible faux pas. (He called something by its true name and in the way the U.S. government always has!) The West Bank should be called “disputed territories” or “Judea and Samaria,” the way hard-line Jews prefer. So, Politico reported, Christie hastily arranged a meeting with Adelson to explain that he misspoke and that he was a true friend of Israel. “The New Jersey governor apologized in a private meeting in the casino mogul’s Venetian office shortly afterward,” Politico reported. It said Adelson “accepted” Christie’s “explanation” and “quick apology.”

Read that sentence over and contemplate it.

I don’t know if Israel has a Palestinian partner for a secure withdrawal from the West Bank, or ever will. But I know this: If Israel wants to remain a Jewish, democratic state, it should be doing everything it can to nurture such a partner or acting unilaterally to get out. Because, I’m certain that when reports about the “Adelson primary” reached the desk of Supreme Leader Khamenei in Tehran, a big smile crossed his face and he said to his aides: “May Allah grant Sheldon a long life. Everything is going according to plan.”

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Two years ago, Marina Keegan’s life brimmed with promise. She was graduating with high honors from Yale University, already a precocious writer about to take up a job at The New Yorker.

She had a play that was about to be produced. She had sparked a national conversation about whether graduates should seek meaning or money.

In keeping with that early promise, Keegan’s first book, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” is scheduled to be published in a few days. The title comes from an essay that she wrote in the graduation issue of the Yale newspaper; it was viewed online more than one million times.

The book is a triumph, but also a tragedy — for it’s posthumous.

“I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short,” Keegan wrote in one of her poems. As a senior, she wrote an aching protest on the website of The New York Times about the rush of students into well-paying jobs on Wall Street — not because of innate interest but because that route was lucrative and practical. One-quarter of Yale graduates entering the job market were going into finance or consulting, and Keegan saw this as a surrender of youthful talents and dreams to the altar of practicality.

“Standing outside a freshman dorm, I couldn’t find a single student aspiring to be a banker, but at commencement this May, there’s a 50 percent chance I’ll be sitting next to one,” she wrote. “This strikes me as incredibly sad.”

Keegan recalled being paid $100 to attend a recruiting session at Yale by a hedge fund: “I got this uneasy feeling that the man in the beautiful suit was going to take my Hopes and Dreams back to some lab to figure out the best way to crush them.”

For my part (and Keegan probably would have agreed), I think that we need bankers and management consultants as well as writers and teachers, and there’s something to be said for being practical. Some financiers find fulfillment, and it’s also true that such a person may be able to finance far more good work than a person who becomes an aid worker. Life is complicated.

Yet Keegan was right to prod us all to reflect on what we seek from life, to ask these questions, to recognize the importance of passions as well as paychecks — even if there are no easy answers.

A young man named Adam Braun struggles with similar issues in another new book that complements Keegan’s. Braun began working at a hedge fund the summer when he was 16, charging unthinkingly toward finance, and after graduation from Brown University he joined Bain Consulting.

Yet Braun found that although he had “made it,” his heart just wasn’t in his work. He kept thinking of a boy, a beggar who had never been to school, whom he had met on a trip to India. Braun asked the boy what he wanted most in the world.

The boy replied, “a pencil.”

Braun quit his job to found Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit that builds schools around the world. His new book, “The Promise of a Pencil,” recounts “how an ordinary person can create extraordinary change.”

I hope this year’s graduates will remember the message in the books by Keegan and Braun about seeking fulfillment, zest and passion in life. This search for purpose in life is an elemental human quest — yet one we tend to put off. And we never know when time will run out.

For Marina Keegan, that was just five days after graduation. Her boyfriend was driving her to her father’s 55th birthday party on Cape Cod. Though he was neither speeding nor drinking, he fell asleep at the wheel. They both were wearing seatbelts, but her seat was fully reclined so that the seatbelt was less effective.

The car hit a guard rail and rolled over twice. The boyfriend was unhurt; Keegan was killed.

Her mother, Tracy Keegan, combed the wreckage. Marina’s laptop had been smashed, but the hard drive was extracted to mine the writings so important to her — and now preserved in her book.

After the crash, Marina’s parents immediately forgave and comforted her boyfriend, who faced criminal charges in her death. They asked that he not be prosecuted for vehicular homicide — for that, they said, would have broken their daughter’s heart. Charges were dropped, and the boyfriend sat by her parents at the memorial service.

The book has been lovingly edited by Anne Fadiman, who taught Keegan writing at Yale. “Every aspect of her life,” Fadiman says, “was a way of answering that question: how do you find meaning in your life?”

Fadiman says that Marina would be “beyond thrilled” at having a book published, but would add: “Please pay attention to my ideas. Don’t read this book just because I’m dead.”

And last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

To appreciate how rapidly the ground has shifted, go back just two short years, to April 2012. President Obama didn’t support marriage equality, not formally. Neither did Hillary Clinton. And few people were denouncing them as bigots whose positions rendered them too divisive, offensive and regressive to lead.

But that’s precisely the condemnation that tainted and toppled Brendan Eich after his appointment two weeks ago as the new chief executive of the technology company Mozilla. On Thursday he resigned, clearly under duress and solely because his opposition to gay marriage diverged from the views of too many employees and customers. “Under the present circumstances, I cannot be an effective leader,” he said, and he was right, not just about the climate at Mozilla but also, to a certain degree, about the climate of America.

Something remarkable has happened — something that’s mostly exciting but also a little disturbing (I’ll get to the disturbing part later), and that’s reflected not just in Eich’s ouster at Mozilla, the maker of the web browser Firefox, but in a string of marriage-equality victories in federal courts over recent months, including a statement Friday by a judge who said that he would rule that Ohio must recognize same-sex marriages performed outside the state.

And the development I’m referring to isn’t the broadening support for same-sex marriage, which a clear majority of Americans now favor. No, I’m referring to the fact that in a great many circles, endorsement of same-sex marriage has rather suddenly become nonnegotiable. Expected. Assumed. Proof of a baseline level of enlightenment and humanity. Akin to the understanding that all people, regardless of race or color, warrant the same rights and respect.

Even beyond these circles, the debate is essentially over, in the sense that the trajectory is immutable and the conclusion foregone. Everybody knows it, even the people who still try to stand in the way. The legalization of same-sex marriage from north to south and coast to coast is merely a matter of time, probably not much of it at that.

There will surely be setbacks, holdouts, tantrums like the one in Arizona, whose Legislature in February passed a bill that would have allowed discrimination against gays and lesbians on religious grounds. (Mississippi enacted a vaguely similar measure last week.) Arizona’s governor of course vetoed the legislation, after being pressured by corporate leaders, and their lobbying underscored the larger and more lasting story. At least beyond the offices of Chick-fil-A, it’s widely believed — no, understood — that being pro-gay is better for business than being antigay. Hence the inclusion of a same-sex couple in the famous faces-of-America commercial that Coca-Cola unveiled during the Super Bowl. Hence a more recent television spot, part of the Honey Maid food company’s “This is Wholesome” ad campaign. It showed two dads cuddling their newborn.

The Mozilla story fits into this picture. Eich was exiled following not just employee complaints but signs and threats of customer unrest: The online dating site OkCupid was urging its users to boycott Firefox.

The business community has in fact been a consequential supporter of marriage equality. Wall Street firms lined the coffers of the campaign for marriage equality in New York, and 20 major financial service companies pay substantial membership dues to belong to and underwrite Out on the Street, an industry group that advocates for L.G.B.T. equality.

“You want to talk about a sea change?” Todd Sears, the group’s founder, said to me. “Fourteen financial services companies signed onto an amicus brief in the Edie Windsor case.” That was the one that asked the Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which the court essentially did last June.

The language in the high court’s ruling “demolished every argument put forward to justify marriage discrimination,” said Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry. And that ruling, he added, helped to pave the way for all the court victories — in Utah, in Oklahoma, in Texas — since. This coming Thursday, the United States circuit court in Denver will hear an appeal of the decision by a federal judge in Utah to allow gay and lesbian couples there to wed. The case could have a sweeping effect on a region of the country not typically considered progressive. It could also wind up at the Supreme Court and give the justices a chance to do what they stopped short of last year: decree marriage equality nationwide.

Wolfson noted a fascinating angle of the recent court rulings and of the blessing that Eric Holder gave in February to state-level attorneys general who didn’t want to defend bans on gay marriage. Both invoked racial discrimination in the country’s past, casting bans on same-sex marriage in that context.

Increasingly, opposition to gay marriage is being equated with racism — as indefensible, un-American. “What was once a wedge issue became wrapped in the American flag,” said Jo Becker, a Times writer whose sweeping history of the marriage-equality movement, “Forcing the Spring,” will be published this month. Becker mentioned what she called a rebranding of the movement over the last five years, with two important components. First, gay marriage was framed in terms of family values. Second, advocates didn’t shame opponents and instead made sympathetic public acknowledgment of the journey that many Americans needed to complete in order to be comfortable with marriage equality.

There was no such acknowledgment from Mozilla employees and others who took to Twitter to condemn Eich and call for his head. Writing about that wrath in his blog, The Dish, Andrew Sullivan said that it disgusted him, “as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society.” A leading supporter of gay marriage, Sullivan warned other supporters not to practice “a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else.”

I can’t get quite as worked up as he did. For one thing, prominent gay rights groups weren’t part of the Mozilla fray. For another, Mozilla isn’t the first company to make leadership decisions (or reconsiderations) with an eye toward the boss’s cultural mind-meld with the people below him or her. And if you believe that to deny a class of people the right to marry is to deem them less worthy, it’s indeed difficult to chalk up opposition to marriage equality as just another difference of opinion.

But it’s vital to remember how very recently so many of equality’s promoters, like Obama and Clinton, have come around and how relatively new this conversation remains. It’s crucial not to lose sight of how well the movement has been served by the less judgmental posture that Becker pointed out.

Sullivan is right to raise concerns about the public flogging of someone like Eich. Such vilification won’t accelerate the timetable of victory, which is certain. And it doesn’t reflect well on the victors.

Crap, Mr. Bruni.  He was shit-canned because he was bad for business.  He’s still perfectly free to exercise his rights of free speech to decry same sex marriage.

The Pasty Little Putz, solo

December 29, 2013

Gawd help us, everyone else is off and Putzy has the place all to himself.  In “Confessions of a Columnist” he offers us a look at three of his biggest mistakes of 2013.  It’s an amazingly self-serving piece of crap, and certainly doesn’t even scratch the surface of his piles of mistakes.  However, here he is:

In ancient Sanskrit, the word “pundit” meant “wise man” or “religious sage.” In modern English, it means “often wrong, rarely accountable.” There are ways that those of us who scribble about politics can avoid living down to that reputation — by keeping our predictions vague (it worked for Nostradamus), by sticking to sure things (I told you Herman Cain wouldn’t be elected president), or by deploying weasel words like “it’s possible that …” at every opportunity. But time, chance and fallibility eventually make false prophets of us all.

Still, where wisdom fails, self-criticism is useful. For the last four years, David Weigel, a political writer for the online magazine Slate, has subjected himself to a “pundit audit,” looking back on his worst predictions and explaining what went wrong. It’s a good idea, and so I’m stealing it this week and highlighting my three biggest analytic errors of 2013 before the year is shown the door.

1. In Boehner I trusted. I kicked off last January with a column hailing John Boehner, the much-maligned speaker of the House, as an “American hero” who deserved more credit than he was getting for averting shutdowns, debt-ceiling debacles and a fiscal cliff-jump in 2011 and 2012. Looking ahead to another round of budget battles, I suggested Americans should be grateful that “the speaker who prevented dysfunction from producing disaster last time is around to try again.”

Technically that column didn’t make any predictions, but it radiated an optimism that turned out to be unwarranted. The speaker did try again, but this time he failed, first getting roundly outmaneuvered by Ted Cruz and then accepting an awesomely self-destructive shutdown in the hopes that it would break his party’s fever.

There are things to be said in Boehner’s defense, and still-worse scenarios that his acceptance of the shutdown may have helped avoid. But he still presided over an epic debacle, which would have defined the year in politics if the Obamacare rollout hadn’t come along to save Republicans from themselves. A year ago, I expected the speaker to avoid that kind of disaster. I was wrong.

2. I underestimated Pope Francis — or misread the media. In columns pegged to Pope Benedict’s unexpected retirement and Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s elevation to the papacy, I made two claims: first, that a new “Catholic moment” in American life could “only be made by Americans themselves,” and second, that the new pope’s “evocative name” and “humble posture” wouldn’t be sufficient to repair the church’s image absent concrete steps to extend accountability for the sex-abuse scandal to the upper reaches of the hierarchy.

Given the subsequent media fascination with Francis, my attempt to minimize the papacy’s importance in American religious life may have been somewhat premature. More important, I was entirely wrong about the Vatican’s image being inextricably tied to the legacy of the sex-abuse crisis. To date, the new pope has done much less than the underappreciated Benedict on that front, but nobody in the Western press seems to care: even as American bishops continue to mishandle abuse cases, Francis’s blend of charisma, asceticism and inclusivity have been sufficient to reverse a decade of bad press for Catholicism.

In a way, I’m grateful to have been wrong, since the message and mission of the church deserve as much attention as the continuing blindness of some bishops. But that blindness still needs to be addressed, and it’s troubling, and telling, that the media would give a more liberal-seeming pope a pass on an issue they hammered his predecessor on at every opportunity. And if I’d been just a little more cynical about these things, I probably would have seen it coming.

3. I made too much of the Syria debate. When it looked as if the White House might lose a vote authorizing a bombing campaign against Bashar al-Assad, I argued that a congressional defeat would “basically finish off” President Obama “as a credible actor on the world stage,” putting us on “a long, hard, dangerous road to January 2017.”

This prediction was overtaken by events when Vladimir Putin offered the White House a face-saving way out. But even though the fateful vote never took place, my apocalyptic tone was unwarranted and overwrought. Not that the Syria debate wasn’t bad for the administration’s credibility. But in hindsight I’m not sure a lost vote would have made the damage that much worse.

One of the bad habits of pundits is to perpetually look for Grand Turning Points, moments after which Nothing Is the Same, to impose an artificial order on the messiness of political reality. Such moments sometimes do exist: the botched Obamacare rollout, for instance, still feels like a potentially crucial inflection point for the president’s domestic credibility. But where the White House’s foreign policy is concerned, the Syria resolution debate looks smaller the further it recedes, and I made more of it than it deserved.

Here endeth the self-criticism. Happy almost-New Year, and here’s to an infallible 2014.

Putzy, Putzy, Putzy, the idea of you being infallible is beyond risible.

The Pasty Little Putz and Kristof

December 30, 2012

MoDo, The Moustache of Wisdom and Mr. Bruni are all off today.  Making eggnog, I suppose…  The Pasty Little Putz has decided to tell us “How To Read in 2013.”  Really.  He gurgles that this is the moment to get out of your rut and visit the rest of the political spectrum.  We do, Putzy, we do.  We suffer through you and Bobo.  Mr. Kristof is in Beijing.  In “Hitting China With Humor” he says Ai Weiwei torments the Communist Party with his antics and sends a message to President Obama about the need to support democracy.  Here’s The Putz:

Come what may in the next 12 months, 2013 has this much going for it: It’s a year without a midterm election, and a year that’s as far removed as possible from the next presidential race. This means that for a blessed 365 days you can be a well-informed and responsible American citizen without reading every single article on Politico, without hitting refresh every 30 seconds on your polling-average site of choice, without channel-hopping between Chris Matthews’s hyperventilating and Dick Morris’s promises of an inevitable Republican landslide.

So use the year wisely, faithful reader. For a little while, at least, let gridlock take care of itself, shake yourself free of the toils of partisanship, and let your mind rove more widely and freely than the onslaught of 2014 and 2016 coverage will allow.

Here are three steps that might make such roving particularly fruitful. First, consider taking out a subscription to a magazine whose politics you don’t share. I’m using the word “subscription” advisedly: it may sound fusty in the age of blogs and tweets and online hopscotching, but reading the entirety of a magazine, whether in print or on your tablet, is a better way to reckon with the ideas that its contributors espouse than just reading the most-read or most-e-mailed articles on its Web site, or the occasional inflammatory column that all your ideological compatriots happen to be attacking.

So if you love National Review’s political coverage, add The New Republic or The Nation to your regular rotation as well. If you think that The New Yorker’s long-form journalism is the last word on current affairs, take out a Weekly Standard subscription and supplement Jeffrey Toobin with Andy Ferguson, Adam Gopnik with Christopher Caldwell. If you’re a policy obsessive who looks forward every quarter to the liberal-tilting journal Democracy, consider a subscription to the similarly excellent, right-of-center National Affairs. And whenever you’re tempted to hurl away an article in disgust, that’s exactly when you should turn the page or swipe the screen and keep on reading, to see what else the other side might have to say.

Second, expand your reading geographically as well as ideologically. Even in our supposedly globalized world, place still shapes perspective, and the fact that most American political writers live in just two metropolitan areas tends to cramp our ability to see the world entire.

So the would-be cosmopolitan who currently gets a dose of British-accented sophistication from The Economist — a magazine whose editorial line varies only a little from the Manhattan-and-D.C. conventional wisdom — might do well to read the London Review of Books and The Spectator instead. (The multilingual, of course, can roam even more widely.) The conservative who turns to Manhattan-based publications for defenses of the “Real America” should cast a bigger net — embracing the Californian academics who preside over the Claremont Review of Books, the heartland sans-culottes at RedState, the far-flung traditionalists who write for Front Porch Republic. And the discerning reader should always have an eye out for talented writers — like the Montanan Walter Kirn, the deserving winner of one of my colleague David Brooks’s Sidney Awards — who cover American politics from outside D.C. and N.Y.C.

Finally, make a special effort to read outside existing partisan categories entirely. Crucially, this doesn’t just mean reading reasonable-seeming types who split the left-right difference. It means seeking out more marginal and idiosyncratic voices, whose views are often worth pondering precisely because they have no real purchase on our political debates.

Start on the non-Republican right, maybe, with the libertarians at Reason magazine, the social conservatives at First Things and Public Discourse, the eclectic dissidents who staff The American Conservative. Then head for the neo-Marxist reaches of the Internet, where publications like Jacobin and The New Inquiry offer a constant reminder of how much room there is to the left of the current Democratic Party.

And don’t be afraid to lend an ear to voices that seem monomaniacal or self-marginalizing, offensive or extreme. There are plenty of writers on the Internet who are too naïve or radical or bigoted to entrust with any kind of power, but who nonetheless might offer an insight that you wouldn’t find in the more respectable quarters of the press.

If these exercises work, they’ll make 2013 a year that unsettles your mind a little — subjecting the views you take for granted to real scrutiny, changing the filters through which you view the battles between Team R and Team D, reminding you that more things are possible in heaven and earth than are dreamed of by John Boehner and Harry Reid.

Then, and only then, will you be ready to start counting the days till the 2016 Iowa caucuses arrive.

Here’s a special, large plate of cayenne-coated weasel dicks just for you, Putz.  Don’t choke…  Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

China’s leaders have tried honoring Ai Weiwei and bribing him with the offer of high positions. They have tried jailing him, fining him and clubbing him so brutally that he needed emergency brain surgery. In desperation, they have even begged him to behave — and nothing works.

What is the Politburo to do with a superstar artist with a vast global audience like Ai (whose name is pronounced EYE Way-way), who makes a video of himself dancing “Gangnam style” with handcuffs — parodying the Chinese state — that quickly ends up with more than one million views on YouTube?

How should the Central Committee of the Communist Party react when Ai releases a nude self-portrait with a stuffed animal as a fig leaf? The caption was “grass-mud-horse in the center” — a homonym in Chinese for a vulgar curse against the Communist Party’s central leadership. Or, more precisely, against its mother.

One thing the party detests even more than being denounced is being mocked, and humor is the signature element of Ai’s assaults. Other dissidents, like the great writer Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize winner now in prison, write eloquently of democracy but gain little traction among ordinary Chinese: Ai’s artistic work also seems incomprehensible to many people, but obscene jokes about grass-mud-horses can get more traction — and be difficult to quash.

“I think they don’t know how to handle someone like me,” Ai said in an interview. “They kind of give up managing me.”

One challenge for the Communist Party is that Ai, 55, is one of the world’s great artists. He also comes from a family with close ties to the Communist revolution, and his mother and father were friendly with the parents of China’s new top leader, Xi Jinping.

Ai’s emergence as an icon of resistance represents progress in China, a reflection of an unofficial pluralism that is gaining ground. China increasingly reminds me of South Korea or Taiwan in the early 1980s, when an educated middle class was nibbling away at dictatorship.

There is real improvement in China, Ai acknowledges, and he says that he expects democracy to reach China by 2020 — but he laments that it is already overdue. “They have wasted a whole generation of young people,” he said.

Ai’s irreverence seems shaped by the dozen years he spent in New York City burnishing his artistic reputation. He returned to China in 1993, at the age of 36, and initially behaved himself politically and played a role in designing the magnificent Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

One factor that changed him was the terrible earthquake of 2008 in Sichuan Province in the southwest, when schools collapsed and the government clamped down on parents protesting shoddy construction. Ai backed the parents and began to demand more openness from the government.

Angered by his antagonism, the authorities had Ai beaten up and then destroyed his studio in Shanghai. Then last year the government detained him for nearly three months.

The authorities still block him from traveling abroad, so he is not able to attend a major exhibition of his work now under way at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.

The pressure left Ai feeling more strongly than ever that one of China’s biggest problems is autocratic government. He became more outspoken, not less.

“At every step, they pushed me into it,” he said. “I told them, ‘You create people like me.’ ”

After briefly lying low after his imprisonment, Ai has resumed his political pranks. Mocking the authorities for installing 15 cameras to monitor his movements, he broadcast a public “weiweicam” on the Internet with a feed from his bedroom so the government could keep an even closer eye on him.

“They almost begged me to turn it off,” he said with a grin.

At the end of a long conversation, I asked Ai if he had anything else to say.

“China still needs help from the U.S.,” he said. “To insist on certain values, that is the role of the U.S. That is the most important product of American culture. When Hillary Clinton talks about Internet freedom, I think that’s really beautiful.”

There’s a message there for Americans. We have a powerful military, yes, but the “hard power” of missiles is often exceeded by our “soft power” of ideas. Speaking up for our values around the world invariably raises questions of hypocrisy and inconsistency, but it’s better to be an inconsistent advocate of democracy and human rights than to be a consistent advocate of nothing.

I hope the White House listens to how Ai responded when I asked if President Obama was doing enough to raise human rights concerns.

“I don’t know what they’re doing under the table,” Ai said. “But on the surface, they’re not doing enough.”

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Kristof

December 23, 2012

The Pasty Little Putz is being particularly vile today.  In “Bloomberg, LaPierre and the Void” he has a question:  Where are the alternatives to centrist arrogance and right-wing folly?  Apparently it’s arrogant to suggest that giving everyone an assault weapon might not be a grand idea.  He’s an unspeakable little piece of shit.  In “From Apocalypse to Dystopia”  MoDo says the N.R.A. solves the puzzle on gun violence: it’s the media’s fault.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Send in the Clowns,” says if Republicans continue to be led by a base that denies global warming after Sandy and refuses to ban assault weapons after Sandy Hook, then the party has no future.  Mr. Kristof’s byline is from Bahrain International Airport.  In “When Bahrain Said: Get Lost” he says Bahrain, our ally, is so determined to keep its repression from making headlines that it keeps American journalists, including yours truly, out of the country.  Here’s the dreadful POS from the Putz:

For a week after the Newtown shooting, the conversation was dominated by the self-righteous certainties of the American center-left. In print and on the airwaves, the chorus was nearly universal: the only possible response to Adam Lanza’s rampage was an immediate crusade for gun control, the necessary firearm restrictions were all self-evident, and anyone who doubted their efficacy had the blood of children on his hands.

The leading gun control chorister was Michael Bloomberg, and this was fitting, because on a range of issues New York’s mayor has become the de facto spokesman for the self-consciously centrist liberalism of the Acela Corridor elite. Like so many members of that class, Bloomberg combines immense talent with immense provincialism: his view of American politics is basically the famous New Yorker cover showing Manhattan’s West Side overshadowing the world, and his bedrock assumption is that the liberal paternalism with which New York is governed can and should be a model for the nation as a whole.

It’s an assumption that cries out to be challenged by a thoughtful center-right. If you look at the specific proposals being offered by Bloomberg and others, some just look like reruns of assault weapon regulations that had no obvious effect the last time they were tried. Others still might have an impact on gun violence, but only at a cost: the popular idea of cracking down hard on illegal handguns, for instance, would probably involve “stop and frisk” on a huge scale, and might throw more young men in prison at a time when our incarceration rates are already too high.

But instead of a kind of skepticism and sifting from conservatives, after a week of liberal self-righteousness the spotlight passed instead to … Wayne LaPierre. And no Stephen Colbert parody of conservatism could match the National Rifle Association spokesman’s performance on Friday morning.

It wasn’t so much that LaPierre’s performance made no concession whatsoever on gun restrictions or gun safety — that was to be expected. It was that he launched into a rambling diatribe against an absurdly wide array of targets, blaming everything from media sensationalism to “gun-free schools” signs to ’90s-vintage nihilism like “Natural Born Killers” for the Newtown tragedy. Then he proposed, as an alternative to the liberal heavy-handedness of gun control, something equally heavy-handed — a cop in every school, to be paid for by that right-wing old reliable, cuts to foreign aid.

Unfortunately for our country, the Bloomberg versus LaPierre contrast is basically all of American politics today. Our society is divided between an ascendant center-left that’s far too confident in its own rigor and righteousness and a conservatism that’s marched into an ideological cul-de-sac and is currently battering its head against the wall.

The entire Obama era has been shaped by this conflict, and not for the good. On issue after issue, debate after debate, there is a near-unified establishment view of what the government should do, and then a furious right-wing reaction to this consensus that offers no real policy alternative at all.

The establishment view is interventionist, corporatist and culturally liberal. It thinks that issues like health care and climate change and immigration are best worked out through comprehensive bills drawn up by enlightened officials working hand in glove with business interests. It regards sexual liberty as sacrosanct, and other liberties — from the freedoms of churches to the rights of gun owners — as negotiable at best. It thinks that the elite should pay slightly higher taxes, and everyone else should give up guns, SUVs and Big Gulps and live more like, well, Manhattanites. It allows the president an entirely free hand overseas, and takes the Bush-Obama continuities in foreign policy for granted.

The right-wing view is embittered, paranoid and confused. It opposes anything the establishment supports but doesn’t know what it wants to do instead. (Defund government or protect Medicare? Break up the banks or deregulate them? Send more troops to Libya or don’t get involved? Protect our liberties or put our schools on lockdown?) Sometimes the right’s “just say no” approach holds the establishment at bay — as on climate change and immigration, to date. But sometimes, as the House Republicans are demonstrating in the budget showdown, it makes the eventual defeat that much more sweeping.

What’s missing, meanwhile, are real alternatives — not only conservative, but left-wing as well. On national security, the left has essentially disappeared, sitting on its hands while President Obama embraces powers every bit as imperial as those his predecessor claimed. On economic issues, the Occupy Wall Street movement passed on the chance to actually advance an anticorporate agenda in favor of consciousness raising and theoretical self-gratification.

As for a conservatism with a serious program, and a real understanding of the challenges facing America today — well, hopefully it will surface by the 2016 presidential campaign. Till then, it’s the hubris of Bloomberg versus the humbug of LaPierre. Merry Christmas, America.

Here’s a huge plate of salted weasel dicks for you, Putzy.  Merry Christmas.  If you’re lucky you won’t choke on them.  Now here’s MoDo:

We’re a little overwrought now.

The N.R.A. understands that. It’s as patient with us as a husband with a tremulous pregnant wife prone to crying jags.

This is just a passing meltdown. We’ll get ourselves back under control soon and things will return to normal.

For decades, when the public has grown more sympathetic to gun control after an attempted assassination or a spike in gun murders or a harrowing school shooting, Wayne LaPierre and his fellow N.R.A. officials have hunkered down to wait for the “emotional period” or “hysteria,” as they call it, to pass.

They rule in the back rooms on Capitol Hill and rein in panicked senators and congressmen who fret that they should support some measly legislation to pretend they are not pawns of the gun lobby.

They defend anyone owning anything with a trigger, reiterating that military-style semiautomatics are just uglier hunting guns.

While there were more heartbreaking funerals in Newtown, Conn., with long hearses carrying small bodies, LaPierre stepped to the microphone in Washington on Friday to present the latest variation of his Orwellian creed: Guns don’t kill people. Media kill people.

“Rather than face their own moral failings,” he said in high dudgeon, “the media demonize gun owners, amplify their cries for more laws, and fill the national media with misinformation and dishonest thinking that only delay meaningful action, and all but guarantee that the next atrocity is only a news cycle away.”

So it’s our fault.

LaPierre, who literally trembles when the omnipotent gun lobby is under siege, went ballistic painting a threatening picture of the dystopia that awaits if we don’t protect our schools from guns by putting guns in schools.

“The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters,” he said. “People that are so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can ever possibly comprehend them. They walk among us every single day, and does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn’t planning his attack on a school he’s already identified at this very moment?”

How many more copycat killers, he asked ominously, are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame?

On the day that 6-year-old Olivia Engel, who was going to play an angel in her church’s Nativity play, was buried, LaPierre heinously cloaked his refusal to consider any remedies to gun violence — not even better background checks — as tender concern for the 20 “little kids” shot in cold blood.

He kicked around the old whipping boy, violent video games, even though plenty of his four million members no doubt play violent video games. And he repeated his old saw: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Guns don’t kill people. Guns save people.

The press conference, where the press was not allowed to ask questions, played like an insane parody: a tightly wound lobbyist who earns a million or so a year by refusing to make the slightest concession on gun safety, despite repeated slaughters by deranged shooters with jaw-droppingly easy access to firearms.

LaPierre makes Charlton Heston look like Michael Moore. The N.R.A. vice president, who once called federal agents “jackbooted government thugs,” insists the solution to gun violence is putting police officers, or “armed good guys,” in every one of the nation’s 98,817 K-12 schools.

His logic is spurious. Hunters can have their guns without leaving Americans so vulnerable to being hunted by demented souls with assault rifles that can fire 45 rounds per minute.

And consider that in 1999 an armed sheriff’s deputy policing Columbine High School exchanged fire with the shooters, and still they killed 12 other students and a teacher. Mayor Michael Bloomberg accused LaPierre of “a shameful evasion.”

It’s hard to believe that the N.R.A. needed to go dark for a week after the Newtown shootings to cook up such a chuckleheaded arms race. And LaPierre made a worse case against himself than the media ever could. It’s shocking that the N.R.A. can’t even fake it better.

It didn’t try to mask its obdurate stance by putting forth a less harsh official — a woman who’s a mother and a hunter, for instance. Maybe it could have prompted a serious discussion about armed guards at schools if it had a less crazed presentation and less of an absolute vision that “guns are cool,” as David Keene, its president, says.

The 63-year-old LaPierre and the 67-year-old Keene, a cantankerous former Bob Dole adviser whose son went to prison for shooting at another driver in a road-rage fit, seemed as out-of-touch as Mitt Romney’s campaign and the rest of the white, macho Republican Party.

President Obama, who should have been alarmed that his re-election inspired a boom in gun sales, seems daunted at the prospect of taking on gun lovers, having handed the matter off to Joe Biden to study. The president seems to be setting the table for defeat. If only he had the visceral outrage of a Bloomberg. Who knows what could happen?

Yeah, MoDo, we know that you can’t stand it that President Obama doesn’t get all het up and weepy.  Get over it.  Next up is The Moustache of Wisdom:

When thinking about the state of the Republican Party, I defer to a point that the Democratic consultant James Carville made the other day: “When I hear people talking about the troubled state of today’s Republican Party, it calls to mind something Lester Maddox said one time back when he was governor of Georgia. He said the problem with Georgia prisons was ‘the quality of the inmates.’ The problem with the Republican Party is the quality of the people who vote in their primaries and caucuses. Everybody says they need a better candidate, or they need a better message but — in my opinion — the Republicans have an inmate problem.” The political obsessions of the Republican base — from denying global warming to defending assault weapons to opposing any tax increases under any conditions, to resisting any immigration reform — are making it impossible to be a Republican moderate, said Carville. And without more Republican moderates, there is no way to strike the kind of centrist bargains that have been at the heart of American progress — that got us where we are and are essential for where we need to go.

Republican politicians today have a choice: either change your base by educating and leading G.O.P. voters back to the center-right from the far right, or start a new party that is more inclusive, focused on smaller but smarter government and market-based, fact-based solutions to our biggest problems.

But if Republicans continue to be led around by, and live in fear of, a base that denies global warming after Hurricane Sandy and refuses to ban assault weapons after Sandy Hook — a base that would rather see every American’s taxes rise rather than increase taxes on millionaires — the party has no future. It can’t win with a base that is at war with math, physics, human biology, economics and common-sense gun laws all at the same time.

Do you know how troubled this party is? Two weeks ago, the former G.O.P. Senate majority leader Bob Dole, a great American, went to the Senate floor in his wheelchair to show his support for Senate ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities. Nevertheless, the bill failed to win the two-thirds needed for ratification, because only eight Republicans dared to join Democrats in support of the treaty, which was negotiated and signed by George W. Bush! It essentially requires other countries to improve to our level of protection for the disabled, without requiring us to change any laws. It has already been ratified by 126 countries. But it failed in the Senate because Rick Santorum managed to convince the G.O.P. base that the treaty would threaten U.S. “sovereignty.” Santorum stopped just short of warning that space aliens would take over our country if we ratified the treaty.

Because they control the House, this radical Republican base is now holding us all back. President Obama was moving to the center in these budget negotiations. He reduced his demand for higher tax revenues to $1.2 trillion from $1.6 trillion; he upped the level at which Americans who would be hit with higher taxes to those earning $400,000 a year from $250,000; and he made his own base holler by offering to cut long-term spending by lowering the inflation adjustment index for Social Security. It seemed that with a little more Republican compromise, Obama would have met them in the middle, and we could have had a grand bargain that would put the country on a sounder fiscal trajectory and signal to the markets, the world and ourselves that we can still do big hard things together. That will have to wait. Now the best hope is some mini-, crisis-averting, Band-Aid.

The G.O.P. today needs its own D.L.C. The Democratic Leadership Council was founded by a group of Democratic governors and activists, led by Bill Clinton, in 1985 to lead the party back to the center from a failing leftward course that had resulted in it being repeatedly shut out of the presidency, except after Watergate. I asked Clinton’s pollster, Stan Greenberg, what Republicans could learn from the Clinton/D.L.C. experience.

“There is a lot of pain,” said Greenberg. “You can’t change the party without pain. You can’t just make some head-fakes to Hispanics.” The D.L.C., he noted, started by building an organization over 10 years and by running more centrist Democrats “in the primaries.” It didn’t just wait to pivot to the center in the general election. It fought for and educated the Democrat base in the primaries, by D.L.C. candidates running in support of free trade, Nafta and welfare reform. “With Clinton, we won the primaries in a way that defined us, so that he could run in the general election as the candidate of broad appeal.” That fractured the party and produced Ralph Nader, which cost Al Gore the 2000 election. But after losing that election, said Greenberg, the Democrats came together around a moderate-left core and did not engage “in dysfunctional primaries.”

Republicans need to go through a similar process of building new institutions and coalitions to support candidates who can move the party back to the center-right. Today, all their institutions, from think tanks to Fox TV, said Greenberg, “are reinforcing the trends that are marginalizing their party.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have a decade to wait for a G.O.P. D.L.C. Some leaders in that party need to stand up for sane compromises right now.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Kristof:

Bahrain, one of America’s more repressive allies, tries to keep many journalists and human rights monitors out. I recently tried to slip in anyway.

The jig was up at the Bahrain airport when an immigration officer typed my name into his computer and then snapped to attention. “Go back over there and sit down,” he said, looking at me in horror and keeping my passport. “We’ll call you.”

The Sunni monarchy in Bahrain doesn’t want witnesses as it tightens its chokehold over a largely Shiite population. Almost every evening, there are clashes between the police and protesters, with both sides growing more enraged and violent.

Around 100 people have been killed since Arab Spring protests began in Bahrain in February 2011. I was in Bahrain then as troops opened fire without warning on unarmed protesters who were chanting “peaceful, peaceful.”

The oppression has sometimes been nothing short of savage. Police clubbed a distinguished surgeon, Sadiq al-Ekri, into a coma — because he tried to provide medical aid to injured protesters. By all accounts, torture has been common.

In the larger scheme of things, Bahrain is a tiny country and maybe doesn’t matter much to the United States. What nags at me is that this is a close American ally — assaulting people in some cases with American equipment — yet the Obama administration mostly averts its eyes. This is a case not just of brutal repression, but also of American hypocrisy.

After that initial crackdown in 2011, the king commissioned a blunt outside report, and the Obama administration hoped that the country would ease up under the more open-minded crown prince. That hope is collapsing, and Bahrain is now clamping down more tightly.

“The human rights situation in Bahrain has markedly deteriorated over recent months, with repressive practices increasingly entrenched,” Amnesty International noted in a recent report on Bahrain. It concluded: “the reform process has been shelved and repression unleashed.”

The crackdown has, in turn, hardened the opposition, which increasingly turns to Molotov cocktails, rocks and other weapons to confront the authorities. Moderates on both sides are being marginalized.

This is a tragic turn for Bahrain, which traditionally was a lovely oasis of prosperity, moderation and toleration. Astonishingly, the country’s ambassador to Washington is actually a woman from Bahrain’s tiny Jewish community.

But the king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, can blame himself for the escalation of violence. He has imprisoned leading advocates of peaceful resistance, like Nabeel Rajab, the globally respected president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. My take is that the regime intentionally jails peaceful moderates so as to leave the protest movement in the hands of young men who discredit it by throwing firebombs — and thus create a justification for repression.

On my last visit to Bahrain, I profiled Zainab al-Khawaja, a dynamic young woman with perfect English who studied Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and tries to apply their methods. She is exactly the kind of opposition leader Bahrain needs, firing off Twitter messages rather than rocks, but in an e-mail to me a month ago she lamented: “It’s becoming very hard to even tweet about violations in Bahrain.”

She was prescient: Now she has been imprisoned as well.

“The reason the regime goes after them is because people like Zainab and Nabeel represent a force that they cannot deal with,” said Maryam al-Khawaja, Zainab’s sister, who is now in exile. “They stand firm despite the violence. They continue to protest, and they refuse to use violence. This encourages others to do the same. It’s easier for the regime when protesters use things like Molotov cocktails.”

The Obama administration initially spoke out against the crackdown but has since been “inconsistent and muted,” notes Brian Dooley of Human Rights First. “This has been horribly frustrating for human rights activists in Bahrain hoping that the U.S. would support their push for democracy,” he added.

President Obama pulls his punches partly because the United States bases the Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and partly because Saudi Arabia insistently backs the repression in Bahrain. The security considerations are real, but, to me, this feels like an echo of Egypt: the United States curries favor with a dictator and ignores public yearning for change. The upshot is extremism, instability and anti-Americanism.

At the airport, an immigration officer eventually approached and told me: “Your name is on a list. You cannot be admitted.” There’s no negotiating with a blacklist, and early the next morning I was deported to Dubai.

Government officials treated me respectfully, and I never felt in danger. It’s different if you’re Bahraini. On the day I arrived, police arrested perhaps the last Bahraini human rights activist still at large, Said Yousif al-Muhafdah, after he posted a photo on Twitter of a protester whom police had shot with shotgun pellets. Muhafdah is charged with “disseminating false information through Twitter.” The downward spiral continues.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

September 9, 2012

The Pasty Little Putz says “The Magic is Gone,” and that the Charlotte convention made it clear that the president is out of ideas.  Of course, there’s no mention of any ideas from Rmoney and ZEGS…  In “Playing Now: Hail to Us Chiefs” MoDo has a question:  Will there be a second chance for We, the President?  Typical MoDo hissing like the harpy she is.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “New Rules,” says the plan to “work hard and play by the rules” to get ahead in life is now outdated. It takes much more than that.  Well, yeah, Tommy — it helps if your daddy leaves you millions.  Mr. Kristof tells us about “Where the Cows Are Happy and Food Is Healthy.”  He says don’t laugh, but maybe milk is tastier and healthier if it comes from a cow with a name.  And that hasn’t been loaded with antibiotics…  Mr. Bruni is “Haunted by Hillary,” and says at both conventions, there were ghosts of politics past, present and future.  Here’s The Putz:

The Obama era in American politics began almost exactly eight years ago in Boston, when a youthful Senate candidate’s soaring speech to the Democratic National Convention stole the show from the actual Democratic nominee.

It ended, to all intents and purposes, last Thursday night in Charlotte, when a weary-seeming incumbent delivered perhaps the fourth-best major address at his own convention — a plodding, hectoring speech that tacitly acknowledged that this White House is out of ideas, out of options and no longer the master of its fate.

The end of an era does not necessarily mean the end of a presidency. Barack Obama is still beloved by his supporters and regarded sympathetically by many swing voters. His Republican rival is a flawed candidate running an overcautious campaign. The memories of the Bush presidency’s failures are still fresh enough to make even a stumbling Democratic administration seem as if it might be the lesser of two evils.

But a re-elected Obama will be a permanently diminished Obama, with no magic left in his public persona and no mandate save to stay the current economic course. He may win the necessary electoral votes in November, but come February he will already essentially be a lame duck.

This reality has been apparent for some time, but the proceedings in Charlotte were highly clarifying. On Tuesday, Michelle Obama offered a moving apologia for her husband’s character and leadership. On Wednesday, Bill Clinton smoothly defended Obama’s domestic policy, and then sliced and diced the Republican alternative. On Thursday, Joe Biden issued a stinging populist attack on Mitt Romney, and a robust defense of his boss’s decision-making chops.

All of these speeches appeared to set the president up to do more than just defend his own record and define his opponent as extreme and out-of-touch. By taking the fight to Romney, it seemed, they made it possible for Obama himself to advance a more positive agenda. By looking backward, they made it possible for him to look ahead.

But the president’s actual speech did no such thing. The contrasts he drew with the Republicans were effective enough, but his positive agenda was mostly just a laundry list of easy targets — hiring more teachers, increasing natural gas production, modest short-term deficit reduction — rather than anything remotely transformative or new. By the time Obama was finished, Romney’s tissue-thin acceptance speech looked almost rigorous by comparison.

As the president promised, so is he likely to deliver. An Obama second term could feature some sort of early deal on taxes and spending, because the expiration of the Bush tax cuts will give him a temporarily strengthened hand to play. But a comprehensive, Simpson-Bowles-style deficit deal seems even less likely than before — let alone a deal on Medicare reform, where the two parties are now more polarized then ever. Likewise with liberal priorities like climate change legislation and immigration reform, which would require Democratic gains in Congress (and shifts in public opinion) that this campaign seems unlikely to produce.

As for the unemployed, maybe time and Ben Bernanke can help them, but there were no proposals of significance in the president’s speech for how to speed up short-term economic growth. Nothing new about housing, or the payroll tax, or regulatory reform, or monetary policy — nothing save an appeal for patience along what the president, in an almost Carteresque non-flourish, called the “harder” and “longer” road.

As The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein noted after the speech, a vote for the president’s meager agenda is effectively a vote for a kind of “return to normalcy” after the intense perturbations of the last four years. Clinton’s high-profile convention role was appropriate, in a sense, because in the best-case scenario an Obama second term would return us to the legislative landscape of the late 1990s — an era of small ball and incrementalism and modest forms of bipartisanship, in which politicians of both parties took credit for positive developments that they didn’t actually control.

But we are not in the late 1990s anymore. There is nothing remotely “normal” about the unemployment rate we’re enduring, or the long-term deficits we face, or the fact that the American birthrate has dropped below replacement level over the last five years. Or alternatively, if this is the new normal, then it’s a normalcy that both citizens and politicians should aspire to swiftly leave behind.

So far, Mitt Romney has conspicuously failed to persuade voters that his party, which helped lead us into this mess, has learned enough and changed enough to lead us out of it.

But whatever happens in November, the president’s own words have given us fair warning: We face a continuing crisis, and the liberalism of Barack Obama is no longer equal to the task.

Here’s a large plate of salted weasel dicks for you to nibble on until you present Rmoney’s and ZEGS’ ideas.  I’m not holding my breath…  Here’s MoDo:

How did the one formerly known as The One go for two?

In his renomination acceptance speech here on Thursday night, he told us that America’s problems were tougher to solve than he had originally thought.

And that’s why he has kindly agreed to give us more time.

Because, after all, it’s our fault.

“So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me,” President Obama explained. “It was about you. My fellow citizens, you were the change.”

We were the change!

We were the change? Us?

How on earth could we have let so much of what we fought for slip away? How did we allow Mitch McConnell, Karl Rove, the super PACs, the Tea Party, the lobbyists and the special interests take away our voice?

“Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen,” the president chastised us. “Only you have the power to move us forward.”

We’re so lame. We were naïve, brimming with confidence that we could slow the rise of the oceans, heal the planet, fix the cracks in the Capitol dome.

We never should have let the Congressional Democrats run wild with their stimulus spending on pork that didn’t even create the right kinds of jobs.

It also took us too long to realize what the party of know-nothings and no-everything was up to. We should never have walked into that blind budget alley with John Boehner. We should have realized, after the first of three phone calls went unreturned, that even with a few more merlots under his belt, the speaker wouldn’t have the guts to tell us he couldn’t get a grand bargain through his Tea Party House.

We should never have delegated health care to Max Baucus and let him waste time trying to cut a deal with Senate Republicans who had no intention of going along even with ideas — like the individual mandate — that they backed first.

We should have listened to Joe Biden instead of getting rolled by the generals on Afghanistan.

We’re older, wiser and grayer now.

It’s depressing to look back and remember what soaring hopes we had for ourselves only four years ago. Did we overdo it with the Greek columns? Sheesh, a million people showed up for our inauguration. Now we brag when we break 10,000.

What a drag to realize that Hillary was right: big rallies and pretty words don’t always get you where you want to go. Who knew that Eric Cantor wouldn’t instantly swoon at the sound of our voice or the sight of our smile?

Our forbearing leader didn’t pander to us with that standard breakup line: “It’s not you, it’s me.”

He gave it to us straight: It’s not me, it’s you.

If we get a second term, maybe Republicans will stop blocking, and blowing racial dog whistles. Maybe they’ll realize that they should deal with us, especially if they lose enough Latino voters to cost them not just the White House but Congressional seats.

As the president told us, “our destinies are bound together.” So we have to stop holding him back when he’s trying to go “Forward.”

We admit we like our solitude — maybe a little too much given our chosen profession. We could have opened up our weekend golf foursomes to a few pols — even women! — rather than just the usual junior aides.

And we could probably stomach giving lifts in the limo to some mayors and members of Congress, and actually pretend that we care about their advice — not to mention their votes.

Maybe we could drop the disdainful body language. For that matter, shouldn’t we put a little more effort into helping elect Democrats to Congress? Just because we only did a cameo in the Senate doesn’t mean some people there don’t think of it as a star turn.

Apparently, etiquette matters. We could send out a few thank-you notes to big donors and celebrities who give benefit concerts. Oddly, it turns out folks like to frame notes signed by the president and hang them on the wall.

Maybe we relied too much on Valerie Jarrett, a k a the Night Stalker and Keeper of the Essence. She says people should woo us. But could it be that we need to woo them as well?

How could we have let the storybook president lose his narrative?

How could we keep failing to explain what changes we have gotten through? Why is salesmanship so beneath us?

It’s ironic that Bill Clinton, who couldn’t pass his own health care bill, does a better job of selling ours. Even Obama said on Friday that we should make Bill a cabinet member — “the secretary of ’splainin’ stuff.”

We are grateful to the president for deigning to point out our flaws and giving us another chance.

“I’m the president,” he intoned.

But We, the People, must do the work.

The buck stops with us.

Go back to watching old movies, dear, or whatever it is that makes you happy, and stop being such a harpy.  (And for what it’s worth, you’re responsible for that “The One” crap.)  Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

I just arrived in Shanghai, but I’m thinking about Estonia and wondering about something Presidents Clinton and Obama have been saying.

Wired magazine reported last week that public schools in Estonia are establishing a program for teaching first graders — and kids in all other grades — how to do computer programming. Wired said that the curriculum was created “because of the difficulty Estonian companies face in hiring programmers. Estonia has a burgeoning tech industry thanks in part to the success of Skype, which was developed in Estonia in 2003.”

The news from Estonia prompted The Guardian newspaper of London to publish an online poll asking its readers: “Children aged 7 to 16 are being given the opportunity to learn how to code in schools in Estonia, should U.K. school children be taught programming as part of their school day?” It’s fascinating to read about all this while visiting Shanghai, whose public school system in 2010 beat the rest of the world in math, science and reading in the global PISA exam of 15-year-olds. Will the Chinese respond by teaching programming to preschoolers?

All of this made me think Obama should stop using the phrase — first minted by Bill Clinton in 1992 — that if you just “work hard and play by the rules” you should expect that the American system will deliver you a decent life and a chance for your children to have a better one. That mantra really resonates with me and, I am sure, with many voters. There is just one problem: It’s out of date.

The truth is, if you want a decent job that will lead to a decent life today you have to work harder, regularly reinvent yourself, obtain at least some form of postsecondary education, make sure that you’re engaged in lifelong learning and play by the rules. That’s not a bumper sticker, but we terribly mislead people by saying otherwise.

Why? Because when Clinton first employed his phrase in 1992, the Internet was just emerging, virtually no one had e-mail and the cold war was just ending. In other words, we were still living in a closed system, a world of walls, which were just starting to come down. It was a world before Nafta and the full merger of globalization and the information technology revolution, a world in which unions and blue-collar manufacturing were still relatively strong, and where America could still write a lot of the rules that people played by.

That world is gone. It is now a more open system. Technology and globalization are wiping out lower-skilled jobs faster, while steadily raising the skill level required for new jobs. More than ever now, lifelong learning is the key to getting into, and staying in, the middle class.

There is a quote attributed to the futurist Alvin Toffler that captures this new reality: In the future “illiteracy will not be defined by those who cannot read and write, but by those who cannot learn and relearn.” Any form of standing still is deadly.

I covered the Republican convention, and I was impressed in watching my Times colleagues at how much their jobs have changed. Here’s what a reporter does in a typical day: report, file for the Web edition, file for The International Herald Tribune, tweet, update for the Web edition, report more, track other people’s tweets, do a Web-video spot and then write the story for the print paper. You want to be a Times reporter today? That’s your day. You have to work harder and smarter and develop new skills faster.

Van Ton-Quinlivan, the vice chancellor for work force and economic development at the California Community Colleges System, explained to me the four basic skill sets out there today. The first are people who are “ready now.” That’s people with exactly the right skills an employer is looking for at the right time. Employers will give the local labor market and schools the first chance at providing those people, but if they are not available they’ll go the “shortest distance to find them,” she said, and today that could be anywhere in the world. Companies who can’t find “ready now” will look for “ready soon,” people who, with limited training and on-the-job experience, can fit right in. If they can’t find those, some will hire “work ready.” These are people with two or four years of postsecondary education who can be trained, but companies have shrinking budgets for that now and want public schools to do it. Last are the growing legions of the “far from ready,” people who dropped out or have only a high school diploma. Their prospects for a decent job are small, even if they are ready to “work hard and play by the rules.”

Which is why if we ever get another stimulus it has to focus, in part, on getting more people more education. The unemployment rate today is 4.1 percent for people with four years of college, 6.6 percent for those with two years, 8.8 percent for high school graduates, and 12.0 percent for dropouts.

That’s why I prefer the new mantra floated by Clinton at the Democratic convention, (which Obama has tried to fund): “We have to prepare more Americans for the new jobs that are being created in a world fueled by new technology. That’s why investments in our people” — in more community colleges, Pell grants and vocational-training classes — “are more important than ever.”

Now here’s Mr. Kristof, who forgot more about farming than Mr. Cohen who castigated the term “organic” because he thought it was overused.

Food can be depressing. If it’s tasty, it’s carcinogenic. If it’s cheap, animals were tortured.

But this, miraculously, is a happy column about food! It’s about a farmer who names all his 230 milk cows, along with his 200 heifers and calves, and loves them like children.

Let me introduce Bob Bansen, a high school buddy of mine who is a third-generation dairyman raising Jersey cows on lovely green pastures here in Oregon beside the Yamhill River. Bob, 53, a lanky, self-deprecating man with an easy laugh, is an example of a farmer who has figured out how to make a good living running a farm that is efficient but also has soul.

As long as I’ve known him, Bob has had names for every one of his “girls,” as he calls his cows. Walk through the pasture with him, and he’ll introduce you to them.

“I spend every day with these girls,” Bob explained. “I know most of my cows both by the head and by the udder. You learn to recognize them from both directions.”

“This is Hosta,” he began, and then started pointing out the others nearby. “Jill. Sophia. This is Kimona. Edie would be the spotted one lying there. Pesto is the black one standing up. In front of her is Clare. Next to her is Pasta, who is Pesto’s daughter.”

I asked about Jill, and Bob rattled off her specs. She is now producing about eight gallons a day, with particularly high protein and butterfat content. Jill’s mother was Jolly, a favorite of Bob’s. When Jolly grew old and unproductive, he traded her to a small family farm in exchange for a ham so she could live out her retirement with dignity.

When I pushed for Bob’s secret to tell the cows apart, he explained: “They have family resemblances. They look like their mothers.”

Oh, that helps.

As a farmkid myself, growing up with Bob here in the rolling green hills of Yamhill, where the Willamette Valley meets the coastal range, I’ve been saddened to see American farms turn into food factories. Just this year, I’ve written about hens jammed in cages, with dead birds left to rot beside the survivors, and about industrial farms that try to gain a financial edge by pumping chickens full of arsenic, antibiotics, Tylenol and even Prozac.

Yet all is not lost. Family farms can still thrive, while caring for animals and producing safe and healthy food.

For Bob, a crucial step came when he switched to organic production eight years ago. A Stanford study has cast doubt on whether organic food is more nutritious, but it affirms that organic food does contain fewer pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Bob’s big worry in switching to organic production was whether cows would stay healthy without routine use of antibiotics because pharmaceutical salesmen were always pushing them as essential. Indeed, about 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States go to farm animals — leading to the risk of more antibiotic-resistant microbes, which already cause infections that kill some 100,000 Americans annually.

Bob nervously began to experiment by withholding antibiotics. To his astonishment, the cows didn’t get infections; on the contrary, their health improved. He realized that by inserting antibiotics, he may have been introducing pathogens into the udder. As long as cows are kept clean and are given pasture rather than cooped up in filthy barns, there’s no need to shower them with antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, he says.

Many cows in America now live out their lives in huge dairy barns, eating grain and hay and pumping out milk. But evidence is growing that cows don’t do well when locked up, so now many dairies are reverting to the traditional approach of sending cows out to pasture on grass.

“Pasture does wonders for cow health,” Bob said. “There’s so much evidence that they are much happier out there. You can extend their lives so much by keeping them off concrete, so the trend is going that way.”

Is it a soggy sentimentality for farmers to want their cows to be happy? Shouldn’t a businessman just worry about the bottom line?

Bob frowned. “For productivity, it’s important to have happy cows,” he said. “If a cow is at her maximum health and her maximum contentedness, she’s profitable. I don’t even really manage my farm so much from a fiscal standpoint as from a cow standpoint, because I know that, if I take care of those cows, the bottom line will take care of itself.”

This isn’t to say that Bob’s farm is a charity hostel. When cows age and their milk production drops, farmers slaughter them. Bob has always found that part of dairying tough, so, increasingly, he uses the older cows to suckle steers. That way the geriatric cows bring in revenue to cover their expenses and their day of reckoning can be postponed — indefinitely, in the case of his favorite cows.

I teased Bob about running a bovine retirement home, and he smiled unapologetically.

“I feel good about it,” he said simply. “They support me as much as I support them, so it’s easy to get attached to them. I want to work hard for them because they’ve taken good care of me.”

Like many farmers, Bob frets about regulations and reporting requirements, but he also sympathizes with recent animal rights laws meant to improve the treatment of livestock and poultry.

“You hate to have it go to legislation, but we need to protect the animals,” he said. “They’re living things, and you have to treat them right.”

Granted, such a humane attitude may be easier to apply to dairying than to poultry. It’s tough for cage-free poultry farms to compete economically with huge industrial operations that raise millions of birds jammed into cages, and healthy food that is good for humans and animals in some cases will cost more.

Moreover, we’re never going to revert to the kind of agriculture that existed a century ago. Bob’s 600 acres used to be farmed by five different families, and that consolidation won’t be undone. But neither is it inevitable that consolidation will continue indefinitely so that America’s farms end up as vast, industrial, soulless food factories.

I loved growing up on a sheep and cherry farm, even if that did mean getting up at 3 a.m. in the winter to check for newborn lambs, and I hope medium-size family farms remain a pillar of rural America. As Bob’s dairy shows, food need not come at the cost of animal or human health and welfare. We need not wince when we contemplate where our food comes from.

The next time you drink an Organic Valley glass of milk, it may have come from one of Bob’s cows. If so, you can bet it was a happy cow. And it has a name.

And last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

At their party’s ebullient convention last week, the Democratic politicians with an eye on the 2016 presidential contest were out in full force and almost in full stride, never mind that 2012 has yet to be settled.

Martin O’Malley, the Maryland governor, popped up here, there and everywhere. Mark Warner, the Virginia senator, was nearly as ubiquitous. And Joe Biden made the fiery most of a prime speaking slot just before President Obama’s.

But all of them knew that their efforts would probably be for naught and their aspirations in vain if a certain someone who was then half a world away decided to reach — again — for the White House. Like a poltergeist in a pantsuit, Hillary Clinton haunted Charlotte.

She was the grand phantom of the 2012 political conventions, but not the only one. Both the Republican gathering in Tampa and the Democratic conclave here were almost as fascinating for what and who were missing as for what and who were present: for the appearances that didn’t happen or that occurred only briefly or belatedly.

The Democrats lacked not only Hillary but also, in the beginning, God. To some party stalwarts that’s probably a statement of the utmost redundancy. Hillary is God, or at least a holy ghost.

Will she run in 2016? I can’t tell you how many times I heard that question and how largely it loomed in Charlotte. There’s a strong belief that she’s seriously considering one last bid, and a fervent wish that the Hillary saga not yet be over, because it’s as riveting as any in the last quarter-century of American politics.

The video that was shown just before Bill Clinton delivered his speech on Wednesday night reminded delegates and the rest of us of the Clintons’ epoch in the White House, years of serial scandals and provisional hairstyles. It reminded us, too, that for Hillary, a setback is merely a prelude to redemption, a warm-up for the last laugh. She’s the comeback kid.

From Hillarycare, Whitewater, Travelgate, Monica Lewinsky and the bruising presidential primaries in 2008, she rebounded to where she is today, a Democratic deity so revered that the 2016 nomination is presumed hers if she wants it. It’s seen almost as a matter of destiny, a piece of unfinished business. The party realized one kind of history with Obama’s election and would love to realize another with Hillary’s. It’s time for a woman. It’s long past time.

This particular woman’s absence from Charlotte wasn’t a clue to her intentions, a tea leaf to be read. Her day job, as secretary of state, had her in Asia. And a picture of her in East Timor, watching Bill’s speech, circulated quickly and spoke to why there’s such fascination with her these days. In the photograph she sat alone and at peace, attentive but not beholden to the human comet who took her on such a wild ride. She was now traveling through a separate cosmos, blazing an independent trail, lighting up the sky on her own.

Other absences were indeed freighted with tactical significance. They underscored how little it benefits some Democrats to go near a party platform with many planks to the left of the center, and they suggested how unpopular the party or the president is in certain states. Senator Jon Tester, fighting a tough re-election battle in Montana, skipped Charlotte. So did a remarkably long list of other Democrats in similarly fierce fights: Claire McCaskill, who stayed put in Missouri; Bob Kerrey, who didn’t leave Nebraska; Heidi Heitkamp, who campaigned in North Dakota; and Joe Donnelly, who did likewise in Indiana.

DEMOCRATS are on tenterhooks about the preservation of their Senate majority, which may help explain another convention phantom: gun control, the issue they feel they mustn’t touch. After a summer of bullets and despite a poignant appearance onstage by Gabby Giffords, Obama ignored it, other headliners avoided it and our Glock-toting country went about its merry and murderous way, with a shooting spree every few months and a failure of resolve to do anything about it.

Before Charlotte I was in Tampa, and there were a few moments between Paul Ryan’s and Mitt Romney’s speeches when I blinked. Hence I missed Scott Brown, the Republican senator from Massachusetts.

What an intriguing predicament he’s in. The only way he beats Elizabeth Warren, his Democratic rival, and wins re-election is to persuade his state’s voters that the “R” attached to his name is purely decorative, like the hood ornaments on a couple of old Cadillacs. So he stayed in Tampa about as long as the chardonnay in a Real Housewife’s glass lasts, and managed in his ultra-brief remarks to reporters to work in the words “moderate” and “pro-choice.” After he was spotted with Karl Rove, an aide made sure to characterize the meeting as accidental.

But the only way Brown converts a victory over Warren into, say, a run for national office — and I guarantee you, given his age (52) and his looks, that the thought has lodged deep in his mind — is a renunciation of that vaunted moderation. A renunciation of Massachusetts, really. You can see where I’m going with this. He’s Romney redux. Déjà Mitt.

Speaking of flashbacks and memories, one in particular was frowned on in Tampa. Delegates were dissuaded from déjà George.

I refer to the second President Bush, who appeared with his father in a video of just five minutes one night. That was it, and that said it all. Romney, Ryan and other Republicans are running as stewards of the country’s finances more trustworthy and less profligate than Obama, but Bush busted the budget and ran up the debt with his tax cuts, his expansion of entitlements, his wars. And Ryan abetted him every step of the way.

Is it any wonder that he wasn’t produced in the flesh and given free rhetorical rein, as Bill Clinton was? That his brother Jeb was welcomed onto the stage even as he came nowhere near it?

Republicans want you to look at the country’s woes and see only Obama. Democrats want to prevent that, and this election may hinge on what is and isn’t tugged out of the shadows. As surely as the specter of Hillary hovers over 2016, the apparition of the last president stalks 2012. And there’s no telling yet how these two great ghost stories end.

It’s interesting that yet again comments were closed on the columnists by 6 AM Sunday.  Maybe because The Pasty Little Putz and MoDo were having their heads handed to them on plates?

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

January 29, 2012

The Putz has a stab at addressing “Government and It’s Rivals.”  He gurgles that the power of the state can crowd out other forms of community.  Did you realize that, according to him “Every tax dollar the government takes is a dollar that can’t go to charities and churches.”  What a buffoon.  In “Tension on the Tarmac” MoDo has a question:  What is it about runways that brings out the fire in our cool president?  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Made in the World,” says there is a big gap in how C.E.O.’s and political leaders look at the world.  Mr. Kristof, in “What’s He Got to Hide?,” says Ethiopia brutally imprisons journalists who champion free speech and an end to human rights abuses. That repression is only inviting more scrutiny.  Mr. Bruni says “Genetic or Not, Gay Won’t Go Away.”  He says while Cynthia Nixon’s critics have good reason to worry about how her words will be construed, they have no right to demand silence and conformity from her.  Here’s the Putz:

When liberals are in a philosophical mood, they like to cast debates over the role of government not as a clash between the individual and the state, but as a conflict between the individual and the community. Liberals are for cooperation and joint effort; conservatives are for self-interest and selfishness. Liberals build the Hoover Dam and the interstate highways; conservatives sit home and dog-ear copies of “The Fountainhead.” Liberals know that it takes a village; conservatives pretend that all it takes is John Wayne.

In this worldview, the government is just the natural expression of our national community, and the place where we all join hands to pursue the common good. Or to borrow a line attributed to Representative Barney Frank, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”

Many conservatives would go this far with Frank: Government is one way we choose to work together, and there are certain things we need to do collectively that only government can do.

But there are trade-offs as well, which liberal communitarians don’t always like to acknowledge. When government expands, it’s often at the expense of alternative expressions of community, alternative groups that seek to serve the common good. Unlike most communal organizations, the government has coercive power — the power to regulate, to mandate and to tax. These advantages make it all too easy for the state to gradually crowd out its rivals. The more things we “do together” as a government, in many cases, the fewer things we’re allowed to do together in other spheres.

Sometimes this crowding out happens gradually, subtly, indirectly. Every tax dollar the government takes is a dollar that can’t go to charities and churches. Every program the government runs, from education to health care to the welfare office, can easily become a kind of taxpayer-backed monopoly.

But sometimes the state goes further. Not content with crowding out alternative forms of common effort, it presents its rivals an impossible choice: Play by our rules, even if it means violating the moral ideals that inspired your efforts in the first place, or get out of the community-building business entirely.

This is exactly the choice that the White House has decided to offer a host of religious institutions — hospitals, schools and charities — in the era of Obamacare. The new health care law requires that all employer-provided insurance plans cover contraception, sterilization and the morning-after (or week-after) pill known as ella, which can work as an abortifacient. A number of religious groups, led by the American Catholic bishops, had requested an exemption for plans purchased by their institutions. Instead, the White House has settled on an exemption that only covers religious institutions that primarily serve members of their own faith. A parish would be exempt from the mandate, in other words, but a Catholic hospital would not.

Ponder that for a moment. In effect, the Department of Health and Human Services is telling religious groups that if they don’t want to pay for practices they consider immoral, they should stick to serving their own co-religionists rather than the wider public. Sectarian self-segregation is O.K., but good Samaritanism is not. The rule suggests a preposterous scenario in which a Catholic hospital avoids paying for sterilizations and the morning-after pill by closing its doors to atheists and Muslims, and hanging out a sign saying “no Protestants need apply.”

The regulations are a particularly cruel betrayal of Catholic Democrats, many of whom had defended the health care law as an admirable fulfillment of Catholicism’s emphasis on social justice. Now they find that their government’s communitarianism leaves no room for their church’s communitarianism, and threatens to regulate it out of existence.

Critics of the administration’s policy are framing this as a religious liberty issue, and rightly so. But what’s at stake here is bigger even than religious freedom. The Obama White House’s decision is a threat to any kind of voluntary community that doesn’t share the moral sensibilities of whichever party controls the health care bureaucracy.

The Catholic Church’s position on contraception is not widely appreciated, to put it mildly, and many liberals are inclined to see the White House’s decision as a blow for the progressive cause. They should think again. Once claimed, such powers tend to be used in ways that nobody quite anticipated, and the logic behind these regulations could be applied in equally punitive ways by administrations with very different values from this one.

The more the federal government becomes an instrument of culture war, the greater the incentive for both conservatives and liberals to expand its powers and turn them to ideological ends. It is Catholics hospitals today; it will be someone else tomorrow.

The White House attack on conscience is a vindication of health care reform’s critics, who saw exactly this kind of overreach coming. But it’s also an intimation of a darker American future, in which our voluntary communities wither away and government becomes the only word we have for the things we do together.

The only thing that makes reading him tolerable is reading the comments, where he’s eviscerated.  Now here’s MoDo, who’s in Miami:

What is it with Barack Obama’s penchant for getting in tangles with blond politicians on airport tarmacs?

Usually, tarmacs are for joyous welcomes or teary goodbyes. But No Drama Obama saves his rare tempests for the runway.

In the last primary season, the tension in the relationship between Hillary Clinton, who had expected to glide to the nomination, and the upstart younger senator from Illinois came to a head one day in December 2007 as both were preparing to board their planes in Washington to go to an Iowa debate.

Hillary had sent word that she wanted to talk to Obama. Standing in front of her plane, she apologized to him for the comments of her co-chairman in New Hampshire, Billy Shaheen, who had warned that Republicans would pounce on Obama’s confessions of cocaine and marijuana use.

But given the opening, Obama dived in, telling Clinton that she should intervene to stop the pattern of insinuations and attacks by her supporters, including one by a volunteer in Iowa who had forwarded an e-mail claiming Obama was a Muslim.

That’s when Hillary got upset and began gesticulating, giving Obama a piece of her mind about what she saw as unfair attacks on his side. Obama gently put his hand on her arm “to chill her out,” as an aide later told me.

But Hillary did not like it, feeling she was being held in place and patronized, even “manhandled,” as her aide put it to a reporter.

On Wednesday, Obama had another bristly tarmac moment with Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, who met Air Force One when the president landed in Phoenix. The toxic dominatrix of illegal immigration, the woman who turned every Latino in her state into a suspect, was flustered and gesticulating at the president as he put his hand on her arm to chill her out. Brewer complained afterward that she had felt “unnerved” and “a little bit threatened” by Obama and that he had walked away while she was in midsentence.

Brewer told Monica Crowley, subbing for Sean Hannity on Fox News, that she had given the president a letter inviting him to join her at the border to discuss enforcement. She said he shot back that her account of a 2010 Oval Office meeting on the topic, published in her book, “Scorpions for Breakfast: My Fight Against Special Interests, Liberal Media and Cynical Politicos to Secure America’s Border,” was distorted.

“He was patronizing,” Brewer wrote about the president in her book, adding: “He’s treating me like the cop he had over for a beer after he bad-mouthed the Cambridge police.” (The president’s recent performances are boosting sales of Brewer’s book and Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”)

With typical Fox balance, Crowley told Governor Brewer that she admired her for “getting in the president’s grill,” adding, “You go, girl.”

The president can be thin-skinned, but the governor can be fat-headed. The Constitution is more threatened by Brewer’s racial profiling than the governor was by the president’s fact-checking. Brewer’s grasp of facts is tenuous, after all: she told The Arizona Republic in 2010 that her father died fighting the Nazis in Germany, when he died a decade after the end of the war, which he spent working at an ammunition factory in Nevada.

Both of Obama’s tarmac tiffs worked in his favor. After his encounter with Hillary, he told advisers that it was the first time he knew he could beat her because he saw fear in her eyes.

After his brouhaha with Brewer, dubbed “the dust-up in the desert,” he became a hero to the Hispanics he had gone West to court. They loved seeing their Cruella de Vil get dressed down.

Everything is breaking Barry’s way, as Mitt and Newt rip into each other in vicious ads and debates like alligators going after house pets.

Romney was tutored in Florida by Brett O’Donnell, a new debate coach. Too bad he can’t find a conviction coach.

O’Donnell manned up Mittens and taught him how to pummel Newt in “moments of strength,” as the Republican strategist Alex Castellanos calls them. The funny thing is that the reason Gingrich soared in South Carolina, before faltering here, was that Republicans are so afraid of debates with the president that they are obsessed with sending forth their toughest adversary for him.

They seem to have forgotten that, while Obama has had dazzling moments of strength in executing Osama and in swashbuckling derring-do against Somali pirates — if not in dealing with Congress — he was no Abe Lincoln in debates. He did not like debating, and Michelle urged him to be more visceral. He often faded onstage because he stubbornly refused to accept debates as alpha combat rather than beta seminars. He disdained anything he saw as superficial politics, from sound bites to macho put-downs.

If Obama continues to resist the gladiatorial subtext, while Romney embraces it, the debates could be more evenly matched than the Republicans dare to dream.

Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

The Associated Press reported last week that Fidel Castro, the former president of Cuba, wrote an opinion piece on a Cuban Web site, following a Republican Party presidential candidates’ debate in Florida, in which he argued that the “selection of a Republican candidate for the presidency of this globalized and expansive empire is — and I mean this seriously — the greatest competition of idiocy and ignorance that has ever been.”

When Marxists are complaining that your party’s candidates are disconnected from today’s global realities, it’s generally not a good sign. But they’re not alone.

There is today an enormous gap between the way many C.E.O.’s in America — not Wall Street-types, but the people who lead premier companies that make things and create real jobs — look at the world and how the average congressmen, senator or president looks at the world. They are literally looking at two different worlds — and this applies to both parties.

Consider the meeting that this paper reported on from last February between President Obama and the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who died in October. The president, understandably, asked Jobs why almost all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other products Apple sold last year were made overseas. Obama inquired, couldn’t that work come back home? “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” Jobs replied.

Politicians see the world as blocs of voters living in specific geographies — and they see their job as maximizing the economic benefits for the voters in their geography. Many C.E.O.’s, though, increasingly see the world as a place where their products can be made anywhere through global supply chains (often assembled with nonunion-protected labor) and sold everywhere.

These C.E.O.’s rarely talk about “outsourcing” these days. Their world is now so integrated that there is no “out” and no “in” anymore. In their businesses, every product and many services now are imagined, designed, marketed and built through global supply chains that seek to access the best quality talent at the lowest cost, wherever it exists. They see more and more of their products today as “Made in the World” not “Made in America.” Therein lies the tension. So many of “our” companies actually see themselves now as citizens of the world. But Obama is president of the United States.

Victor Fung, the chairman of Li & Fung, one of Hong Kong’s oldest textile manufacturers, remarked to me last year that for many years his company operated on the rule: “You sourced in Asia, and you sold in America and Europe.” Now, said Fung, the rule is: “ ‘Source everywhere, manufacture everywhere, sell everywhere.’ The whole notion of an ‘export’ is really disappearing.”

Mike Splinter, the C.E.O. of Applied Materials, has put it to me this way: “Outsourcing was 10 years ago, where you’d say, ‘Let’s send some software generation overseas.’ This is not the outsourcing we’re doing today. This is just where I am going to get something done. Now you say, ‘Hey, half my Ph.D.’s in my R-and-D department would rather live in Singapore, Taiwan or China because their hometown is there and they can go there and still work for my company.’ This is the next evolution.” He has many more choices.

Added Michael Dell, founder of Dell Inc.: “I always remind people that 96 percent of our potential new customers today live outside of America.” That’s the rest of the world. And if companies like Dell want to sell to them, he added, it needs to design and manufacture some parts of its products in their countries.

This is the world we are living in. It is not going away. But America can thrive in this world, explained Yossi Sheffi, the M.I.T. logistics expert, if it empowers “as many of our workers as possible to participate” in different links of these global supply chains — either imagining products, designing products, marketing products, orchestrating the supply chain for products, manufacturing high-end products and retailing products. If we get our share, we’ll do fine.

And here’s the good news: We have a huge natural advantage to compete in this kind of world, if we just get our act together.

In a world where the biggest returns go to those who imagine and design a product, there is no higher imagination-enabling society than America. In a world where talent is the most important competitive advantage, there is no country that historically welcomed talented immigrants more than America. In a world in which protection for intellectual property and secure capital markets is highly prized by innovators and investors alike, there is no country safer than America. In a world in which the returns on innovation are staggering, our government funding of bioscience, new technology and clean energy is a great advantage. In a world where logistics will be the source of a huge number of middle-class jobs, we have FedEx and U.P.S.

If only — if only — we could come together on a national strategy to enhance and expand all of our natural advantages: more immigration, most post-secondary education, better infrastructure, more government research, smart incentives for spurring millions of start-ups — and a long-term plan to really fix our long-term debt problems — nobody could touch us. We’re that close.

And next up is Mr. Kristof, writing from Davos, Switzerland:

In a filthy Ethiopian prison that is overridden with lice, fleas and huge rats, two Swedes are serving an 11-year prison sentence for committing journalism.

Martin Schibbye, 31, and Johan Persson, 29, share a narrow bed, one man’s head beside the other’s feet. Schibbye once woke up to find a rat mussing his hair.

The prison is a violent, disease-ridden place, with inmates fighting and coughing blood, according to Schibbye’s wife, Linnea Schibbye Steiner, who last met with her husband in December. It is hot in the daytime and freezing cold at night, and the two Swedes are allowed no mail or phone calls, she said. Fortunately, she added, the 250 or so Ethiopian prisoners jammed in the cell protect the two journalists, pray for them and jokingly call their bed “the Swedish embassy.”

What was the two men’s crime? Their offense was courage. They sneaked into the Ogaden region to investigate reports of human rights abuses.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s increasingly tyrannical ruler, seemed to be sending a signal to the world’s journalists: Don’t you dare mess with me!

So the only proper response is a careful look at Meles’s worsening repression. Sadly, this repression is abetted by acquiescence from Washington and by grants from aid organizations.

Those Swedish journalists will probably be released early because of international pressure. But there will be no respite for the countless Ethiopians who face imprisonment, torture and rape.

I’m in Davos, Switzerland, for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, and so is Meles. I’ve been pursuing him for the last few days, trying to confront him and ask him about his worsening pattern of brutality.

He has refused to see me, so I enlisted my Twitter followers to report Meles sightings. I want to ask him why he has driven more journalists into exile over the last decade than any other leader in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City.

Meles has done genuine good in fighting poverty. He has some excellent officials under him, including a superb health minister, and Ethiopia’s economy is making progress in health and agriculture. Ethiopia is full of aid organizations, and it has a close intelligence and military relationship with the United States government.

Yet since 2005, when an initial crackdown left 200 protesters dead and 30,000 detained, Meles has steadily tightened his grip. A Human Rights Watch report this month noted that the government is forcibly removing tens of thousands of people from their rural homes to artificial villages where they risk starvation. Those who resist endure arrests, beatings or worse.

“The repression is getting worse,” notes Tamerat Negera, who fled to the United States after the newspaper he edited was closed down in 2009. “His vision seems an attempt to root out any dissent.”

Meles has criminalized dissent, with a blogger named Eskinder Nega now facing terrorism charges, which could mean a death sentence. His true crime was calling on the government to allow free speech and end torture.

Appallingly, the Meles regime uses foreign food aid to punish his critics. Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest recipients of development aid, receiving about $3 billion annually, with the United States one of its largest donors. This money does save lives. But it also “underwrites repression in Ethiopia,” in the words of Human Rights Watch.

Families and entire areas of the country are deliberately starved unless they back the government, human rights groups have shown. In Ethiopia, the verb “to starve” is transitive.

Look, I’m a huge advocate of smart aid to fight global poverty. But donors and aid groups need to ensure that their aid doesn’t buttress repression.

The Meles regime, run largely by a coterie from his own minority Tigrayan ethnicity, has been particularly savage in the Ogaden region, where it faces an armed uprising. When Jeffrey Gettleman, a colleague at The New York Times, went to the Ogaden in 2007, he found a pattern of torture and rape. The government then arrested Gettleman and two colleagues, detaining them for five days in harsh conditions.

The two Swedish reporters illegally entered the Ogaden and met a rebel group to examine that human rights wasteland. In December, they were sentenced to 11-year terms.

Steiner, Schibbye’s wife, said of the harsh conditions: “Eleven years in an Ethiopian prison is equal to life, because you do not survive that long.”

Amnesty International says that in the last 11 months, the government has arrested at least 114 Ethiopian journalists and opposition politicians. It described this as “the most far-reaching crackdown on freedom of expression seen in many years in Ethiopia.”

Prime Minister Meles, you may have dodged me in Davos, but your brutality toward Swedish, American and Ethiopian journalists will not silence the world’s media. You’re just inviting more scrutiny.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

Born this way.

That has long been one of the rallying cries of a movement, and sometimes the gist of its argument. Across decades of widespread ostracism, followed by years of patchwork acceptance and, most recently, moments of heady triumph, gay people invoked that phrase to explain why homophobia was unwarranted and discrimination senseless.

Lady Gaga even spun an anthem from it.

But is it the right mantra to cling to? The best tack to take?

Not for the actress Cynthia Nixon, 45, whose comments in The New York Times Magazine last Sunday raised those very questions.

For 15 years, until 2003, she was in a relationship with a man. They had two children together. She then formed a new family with a woman, to whom she’s engaged. And she told The Times’s Alex Witchel that homosexuality for her “is a choice.”

“For many people it’s not,” she conceded, but added that they “don’t get to define my gayness for me.”

They do get to fume, though. Last week some did. They complained that she represented a minority of those in same-sex relationships and that she had furthermore handed a cudgel to our opponents, who might now cite her professed malleability as they make their case that incentives to change, not equal rights, are what we need.

But while her critics have good reason to worry about how her words will be construed and used, they have no right to demand the kind of silence and conformity from Nixon that gay people have justly rebelled against. She’s entitled to her own truth and manner of expressing it.

 Besides which, there are problems with some gay advocates’ insistence that homosexuality be discussed and regarded as something ingrained at the first breath.

By hinging a whole movement on a conclusion that hasn’t been — and perhaps won’t be — scientifically pinpointed and proved beyond all doubt, they hitch it to a moving target. The exact dynamics through which someone winds up gay are “still an open question,” said Clinton Anderson, the director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns Office of the American Psychological Association. “There is substantial evidence of various connections between genes, brain, hormones and sexual identity,” he said. “But those do not amount to a simple picture that A leads to B.”

One landmark study looked at gay men’s brothers and found that 52 percent of identical twin brothers were also gay, in contrast with only 22 percent of nonidentical twin brothers and 11 percent of adoptive, genetically unrelated brothers. Heredity more than environment seemed to be calling the shots.

Other research has posited or identified common anatomical and chromosomal traits among gay men or lesbians, and there’s discussion of a gay gene or, rather, set of genes in the mix. The push to isolate it is entwined with the belief that establishing that sexual orientation is like skin color — an immutable matter of biology — will make homophobia as inexcusable as racism and winnow the ranks of haters.

But bigotry isn’t rational. Finding a determinative biological quirk, deviation or marker could prompt religious extremists who now want gays in reparative psychotherapy to focus on medical interventions instead. And a person’s absence of agency over his or her concentration of melanin has hardly ended all discrimination against blacks.

What’s more, the born-this-way approach carries an unintended implication that the behavior of gays and lesbians needs biological grounding to evade condemnation. Why should it?

Our laws safeguard religious freedom, and that’s not because there’s a Presbyterian, Buddhist or Mormon gene. There’s only a tradition and theology that you elect or decline to follow. But this country has deemed worshiping in a way that feels consonant with who you are to be essential to a person’s humanity. So it’s protected.

Our laws also safeguard the right to bear arms: not exactly a biological imperative.

Among adults, the right to love whom you’re moved to love — and to express it through sex and maybe, yes, marriage — is surely as vital to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as a Glock. And it’s a lot less likely to cause injury, if that’s a deciding factor: how a person’s actions affect the community around him or her.

I use the words “moved to love” in an effort to define the significant, important territory between “born this way” and choice. That solid ground covers “built this way,” “oriented this way,” and “evolved this way”; it incorporates the possibility of a potent biological predisposition mingling with other factors beyond anyone’s ready control; and it probably applies to Nixon herself. In a Daily Beast interview after the Times article appeared, she clarified that she has experienced an unforced, undeniable attraction to individuals of both sexes. In other words, she’s bisexual, not whimsical. She just happens not to like that term, she said.

In any case, concentrating on how she ended up like that misses the point.

“Most people’s sexual attractions are pretty much fixed” once they take root, said Jack Drescher, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who has written extensively about homosexuality. In light of both that and the unanswered questions about what fixes them, there’s more wisdom and less harm in accepting and respecting homosexuality than not.

We don’t need to be born this way to refute the ludicrous assertion that homosexuality poses some special threat to the stability of the American family. We need only note that heterosexuality — as practiced by the likes of Newt Gingrich and John Edwards, for example — isn’t any lucky charm, and yet no one’s trying to heal the straights.

We don’t need to be born this way to call out Chris Christie, currently trying to avoid responsibility for a decision about same-sex marriage in New Jersey, for being a political wimp. Andrew Cuomo showed courage and foresight in fighting successfully for such legislation in New York. Christie, who fancies himself a dauntless brawler, should do the same in the state next door.

I honestly have no idea if I was born this way. My memory doesn’t stretch to the crib.

But I know that from the moment I felt romantic stirrings, it was Timmy, not Tammy, who could have me walking on air or wallowing in torch songs and tubs of ice cream. These feelings gelled early, and my considerable fear of society’s censure was no match for them.

I know that being in a same-sex relationship feels as central and natural to me as my loyalty to my father, my pride in my siblings’ accomplishments and my protectiveness of their children — all emotions that I didn’t exit the womb with but will not soon shake.

And I know that I’m a saner, kinder person this way than trapped in a contrivance or a lie. Surely that’s not just to my advantage but to society’s, too.

 

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

November 6, 2011

The Pasty Little Putz actually has the stones to look at what he calls “Our Reckless Meritocracy.”  He gurgles that the ruling class proves, again, that it is too smart for its own good.  If there were anything resembling a meritocracy in this country he would have been laid off from McDonald’s for incompetence.  MoDo, in “Women on Pedestals,” says rarely in nature do you see a predator as ferocious as the New York woman on the hunt for the perfect shoe.  More pointless drivel.  The Moustache of Wisdom addresses “India’s Innovation Stimulus” and says native sons have gone from working for Western companies to running Indian companies that are offering solutions to India’s problems.  Mr. Kristof, in “His Libraries, 12,000 So Far, Change Lives,” says Andrew Carnegie’s legendary library-building has been surpassed, in some respects, by an American you’ve probably never heard of. He tells us his story.  Mr. Bruni, in “The Invention of Outrage,” says if ever you needed an example of how easily, spuriously or conveniently we gin up our outrage, last week was it.  Here’s the Putz:

Here is a story about the promise of America. A boy grows up in rural Illinois, the grandson of a farmer who lost everything in the Great Depression. He goes to his small-town high school and then attends his state university, where he walks onto the basketball team and graduates Phi Beta Kappa. He does a stint in the Marine Corps Reserves, gets his M.B.A. and then goes to work for one of the Midwest’s regional banks.

In a different era, he might have stayed there for the rest of his career. But he’s lucky enough to be coming up in the 1960s and ’70s, just as the WASP elite is fading and the big East Coast institutions are opening their doors to strivers from all over. So our Illinois farm boy climbs and keeps on climbing.

He moves to New Jersey and goes to work for Goldman Sachs. He rises to become the company’s C.E.O., and a millionaire many times over. He goes into politics, winning a term in the United States Senate and then getting elected governor of New Jersey. When Barack Obama wins the White House, he’s discussed as a candidate for Treasury secretary. And when he loses his re-election bid, he returns to Wall Street as the head of a financial services company.

By now you may have guessed that I’m talking about Jon Corzine. If so, you probably know that his inspiring story has an unhappy ending — for New Jersey, which faced an enormous budgetary mess when Corzine left office; for his latest Wall Street firm, MF Global, which filed for bankruptcy last week after somehow mislaying some $600 million in customer money; and for the former farm boy himself, who resigned on Friday in disgrace.

But this sudden fall from grace doesn’t make Corzine’s life story any less emblematic of our meritocratic era. Indeed, his rise, recklessness and ruin are all of a piece. For decades, the United States has been opening paths to privilege for its brightest and most determined young people, culling the best and the brightest from Illinois and Mississippi and Montana and placing them in positions of power in Manhattan and Washington. By elevating the children of farmers and janitors as well as lawyers and stockbrokers, we’ve created what seems like the most capable, hardworking, high-I.Q. elite in all of human history.

And for the last 10 years, we’ve watched this same elite lead us off a cliff — mostly by being too smart for its own good.

In hereditary aristocracies, debacles tend to flow from stupidity and pigheadedness: think of the Charge of the Light Brigade or the Battle of the Somme. In one-party states, they tend to flow from ideological mania: think of China’s Great Leap Forward, or Stalin’s experiment with “Lysenkoist” agriculture.

In meritocracies, though, it’s the very intelligence of our leaders that creates the worst disasters. Convinced that their own skills are equal to any task or challenge, meritocrats take risks than lower-wattage elites would never even contemplate, embark on more hubristic projects, and become infatuated with statistical models that hold out the promise of a perfectly rational and frictionless world. (Or as Calvin Trillin put it in these pages, quoting a tweedy WASP waxing nostalgic for the days when Wall Street was dominated by his fellow bluebloods: “Do you think our guys could have invented, say, credit default swaps? Give me a break! They couldn’t have done the math.”)

Inevitably, pride goeth before a fall. Robert McNamara and the Vietnam-era whiz kids thought they had reduced war to an exact science. Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin thought that they had done the same to global economics. The architects of the Iraq war thought that the American military could liberate the Middle East from the toils of history; the architects of the European Union thought that a common currency could do the same for Europe. And Jon Corzine thought that his investment acumen equipped him to turn a second-tier brokerage firm into the next Goldman Sachs, by leveraging big, betting big and waiting for the payoff.

What you see in today’s Republican primary campaign is a reaction to exactly these kinds of follies — a revolt against the ruling class that our meritocracy has forged, and a search for outsiders with thinner résumés but better instincts.

But from Michele Bachmann to Herman Cain, the outsiders haven’t risen to the challenge. It will do America no good to replace the arrogant with the ignorant, the overconfident with the incompetent.

In place of reckless meritocrats, we don’t need feckless know-nothings. We need intelligent leaders with a sense of their own limits, experienced people whose lives have taught them caution. We still need the best and brightest, but we need them to have somehow learned humility along the way.

“Feckless know-nothings.”  I guess The Putz has a mirror after all…  Here’s MoDo:

I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It didn’t take long.

“Mademoiselle!” André Leon Talley barked at a young woman fondling a black cutout ankle boot. “That is too dominatrix for you!”

She turned a gimlet eye on the vast Vogue editor sprawled resplendently in a chair, wearing a Frank Sinatra pork-pie hat, a maroon shirt and trousers from Marrakesh, and a Paloma Picasso burnt-velvet vintage scarf.

“I want to be a dominatrix,” she told him, before dropping the boot, which was pounced on by a pride of women prowling like big cats about to tear into an antelope on Animal Planet.

If you thought the recession had dampened interest in luxury accessories, you didn’t see the women lined up after daybreak at the Warwick Hotel on Thursday. A room there was the scene of one of New York’s most feral anthropological tableaus: the biannual Manolo Blahnik sample sale. Talley has been ringmaster of this sartorial circus for three years running.

Not since Cinderella’s stepsisters mutilated their feet to squeeze into that glass slipper have women leveled such fierce desire at footwear. At last fall’s sale, two women dumped their babies on Manolo employees in the lobby as they sped into the room.

Inside, a thousand pairs of shoes are heaped on tables in plastic bags. Some scofflaws wear old shoes, leave them on a table, and sneak out with new ones.

I stopped by the 10 1/2 table to look for a Christmas present for a friend. “Have you seen any flats?” I asked a woman avidly pawing through the pile.

“If I find them,” she snapped, “I won’t tell you.”

One young man, a lawyer, braved the female crowd to hunt for heels for his girlfriend. “Bonus points,” he said slyly.

Shea Collins, an attractive brunette with a British accent, stopped by Talley’s chair to prove she had the moxie to stride around Manhattan in five-inch stilettos. She lifted her prim gray coat to show him pantyhose with a trompe l’oeil garter belt.

He let out a shriek of delight, before turning to a lovely twenty-something to say her water snake knee-high boots were a “must.” “They’re made from some kind of fish scale,” he said. “That’s sort of sustainable, sort of green.”

In a sumptuous book celebrating his 20th anniversary, Christian Louboutin explained the eternal erotic allure of high heels: “It’s because it gives the woman’s foot the same curve” and arch “as pleasure does” in the boudoir.

Blahnik once told The New Yorker’s Michael Specter that during his lonely childhood in the Canary Islands, he captured lizards and made shoes for them out of tinfoil saved by his mother from her Camel cigarette cartons. Now the designer makes shoes out of reptiles.

Talley, who calls Blahnik “a surrogate brother,” presides like a French king, demanding “raffinement,” oblivious to the cognitive dissonance of his size 15 1/2 black New Balance sneakers with Velcro straps.

“You don’t want Pepto Bismol pink or Tweety Bird yellow,” he announces, surveying the stacks of heels. “I love anything with black sequins.” Or mink pom-poms.

He calls out to a woman in white daisy sandals, “Sexy at the ocean!” and nods to another in black marabou slingbacks: “Marlene Dietrich in ‘Morocco.’ ”

He instructs a lady trying on brown boots: “That white saddle stitching will fit right in in Rockland County, sweetie — suburban chic!” (She was indeed from Rockland County.) He likes a pair of navy suede chevalier boots that a New York Post writer is wriggling into. “Very Toulouse-Lautrec in a bordello.” When she can’t get them zipped, he shakes his head: “Your calves are too fat. Stop going to the gym so much.”

He separates a single woman from a pair of S&M stilettos. “They will help you get a night,” he cautions, “not a boyfriend.”

He crisply orders a woman to step away from some fringed boots — “Annie Oakley is not ‘in’ this year” — and shoos another away from plain black boots. “You can go to L. L. Bean for that,” he snips. But he urges a third to risk some white Mongolian lamb boots mounted on shiny white patent leather: “Oh baby, you’ve got the hot little body for cheerleader boots. Wear them in Gstaad or St. Moritz.”

She murmurs that she doesn’t have that life. He bellows, “Darling, those boots will get you that life!”

A glamorous 75-year-old in a fedora looking at leopard-print stingray d’Orsays confides to Talley: “Twenty years ago I got on an elevator in d’Orsay pumps and I was engaged the next day.”

A young woman approaches Talley to snap a picture of his scarf for her blog, and he is alarmed that she doesn’t know that Paloma is Pablo’s daughter.

“I’m from Kansas,” she wails.

When a woman challenges Talley, he accuses her of wearing “mass-market platforms” into the sale. Another attempts to defy his negative edict, noting that “Kelly Bensimon has these shoes.”

At that, he bristles, reminding all the women teetering and strutting on their pedestals: “I AM NEVER WRONG.”

Thanks, MoDo, for letting the rest of us in on exactly how trivial you and your interests are.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from New Delhi:

The world hit seven billion people last week, and I think I met half of them on the road from New Delhi to Agra here in India. They were on foot, on bicycle, on motor scooters. They were in pickups, dented cars and crammed into motorized rickshaws. They were dodging monkeys and camels and cows. Somehow, though, without benefit of police or stoplights, this flow of humanity that is modern India impossibly went about its business. But just when your mind tells you that this crush of people will surely overwhelm all efforts to lift the mass of India out of poverty, you start to notice a pattern: Every few miles there’s a cellphone tower and a fresh-looking building poking out of the controlled chaos. And the sign out front invariably says “school” — engineering school, biotechnology school, English-language school, business school, computer school or private elementary school. India is still the only country I know where you can find a billboard advertising “physics degrees.”

All these schools, plus 600 million cellphones, plus 1.2 billion people, half of whom are under 25, are India’s hope — because only by leveraging technology and brains can India deliver a truly better life for its masses. There are a million reasons why it won’t happen, but there is one big reason it might. The predicted really is happening: India’s young techies are moving from running the back rooms of Western companies, who outsourced work here, to inventing the front rooms of Indian companies, which are offering creative, low-cost solutions for India’s problems. The late C.K. Prahalad called it “Gandhian innovation,” and I encountered many examples around New Delhi.

Meet Vijay Pratap Singh Aditya, the C.E.O. of Ekgaon. His focus is Indian farmers, who make up half the population and constitute what he calls “an emerging market within an emerging market.” Ekgaon built a software program that runs on the cheapest cellphones and offers illiterate farmers a voice or text advisory program that tells them when is the best time to plant their crops, how to mix their fertilizers and pesticides, when to dispense them and how much water to add each day.

“India has to increase farm productivity,” explains Aditya, “but our farms are small, and advisers from the Agriculture Department can’t reach many of them. So they go for hearsay methods of planting, which leads to low productivity and soil desertification.” Using cloud computing, Ekgaon tailors its advice to each farmer’s specific soil, crop and weather conditions. Some 12,000 farmers are already subscribing ($5 for one year), and the plan is set to grow to 15 million in five years.

Meet K. Chandrasekhar, the C.E.O. of Forus Health, whose focus is “avoidable blindness” among India’s rural poor. A quarter of the world’s blind people, some 12 million, are in India, Chandrasekhar explains, and more than 80 percent of those are blind as a result of a lack of screening and a lack of ophthalmologists in rural areas. In the past, comprehensive screening required multiple expensive diagnostic devices to check for diabetic retinas, cataracts, glaucoma, cornea and refraction problems, all of which cause 90 percent of the avoidable blindness in India. So Forus invented “a single, portable, intelligent, noninvasive, eye prescreening device” that can identify all five of these major ailments and also provide an automated “Normal or Needs to See a Doctor” report; it can be run by a trained technician, who through telemedicine connects patients to a doctor.

“We work with a Dutch company on optics, and the University of Texas supports us in business development,” Chandrasekhar adds. “We are talking to a Brazilian company that is interested in manufacturing our technology and selling in Latin America.” Outsourcees are becoming outsourcers.

Meet Aloke Bajpai, who, like others on his young team, cut his teeth working for Western technology companies but returned to India on a bet that he could start something — he just didn’t know what. The result is iXiGO.com, a travel search service that can run on the cheapest cellphones and helps Indians book the lowest-cost fares, whether it is a farmer who wants to go by bus or train for a few rupees from Chennai to Bangalore or a millionaire who wants to go by plane to Paris. iXiGO now has one million unique users a month and is growing. Bajpai used free open-source software, Skype and cloud-based office tools like Google Apps and social media marketing on Facebook to build his software platform and grow his company. They “enabled us to grow so much faster with no money,” he said.

Finally, there’s Nandan Nilekani, the former C.E.O. of Infosys Technologies, India’s outsourcing giant, who is now leading a government effort to give every Indian citizen an ID number — a crucial initiative in a country where most people have no driver’s license, passport or even birth certificate.

In the last two years, 100 million people have signed up for an official ID. Once everyone has one, the government can deliver them services or subsidies — some $60 billion each year — directly through cellphones or bank accounts, without inept or corrupt bureaucrats siphoning some off.

“We’re bringing the most sophisticated technology to the most deprived,” said Nilekani. “The hyperconnected world is giving us a chance to change India faster, at a larger scale, than ever before.”

Well, at least he didn’t share an cab driver insights with us this time…  Here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Cai Lei, Vietnam:

One of the legendary triumphs of philanthropy was Andrew Carnegie’s construction of more than 2,500 libraries around the world. It’s renowned as a stimulus to learning that can never be matched — except that, numerically, it has already been surpassed several times over by an American man you’ve probably never heard of.

I came here to Vietnam to see John Wood hand out his 10 millionth book at a library that his team founded in this village in the Mekong Delta — as hundreds of local children cheered and embraced the books he brought as if they were the rarest of treasures. Wood’s charity, Room to Read, has opened 12,000 of these libraries around the world, along with 1,500 schools.

Yes, you read that right. He has opened nearly five times as many libraries as Carnegie, even if his are mostly single-room affairs that look nothing like the grand Carnegie libraries. Room to Read is one of America’s fastest-growing charities and is now opening new libraries at an astonishing clip of six a day. In contrast, McDonald’s opens one new outlet every 1.08 days.

It all began in 1998 when Wood, then a Microsoft marketing director, chanced upon a remote school in Nepal serving 450 children. Only one problem: It had no books to speak of.

Wood blithely offered to help and eventually delivered a mountain of books by a caravan of donkeys. The local children were deliriously happy, and Wood said he felt such exhilaration that he quit Microsoft, left his live-in girlfriend (who pretty much thought he had gone insane), and founded Room to Read in 2000.

He faced one challenge after another, not only in opening libraries but also in filling them with books that kids would want to read.

“There are no books for kids in some languages, so we had to become a self-publisher,” Wood explains. “We’re trying to find the Dr. Seuss of Cambodia.” Room to Read has, so far, published 591 titles in languages including Khmer, Nepalese, Zulu, Lao, Xhosa, Chhattisgarhi, Tharu, Tsonga, Garhwali and Bundeli.

It also supports 13,500 impoverished girls who might otherwise drop out of school. In a remote nook of the Mekong Delta, reachable only by boat, I met one of these girls, a 10th grader named Le Thi My Duyen. Her family, displaced by flooding, lives in a shabby tent on a dike.

When Duyen was in seventh grade, she dropped out of school to help her family out. “I thought education was not so necessary for girls,” Duyen recalled.

Room to Read’s outreach workers trekked to her home and cajoled the family to send her back to class. They paid her school fees, bought her school uniforms and offered to put her up in a dormitory so that she wouldn’t have to commute two hours each way to school by boat and bicycle.

Now Duyen is back, a star in her class — and aiming for the moon.

“I would like to go to university,” she confessed, shyly.

The cost per girl for this program is $250 annually. To provide perspective, Kim Kardashian’s wedding is said to have cost $10 million; that sum could have supported an additional 40,000 girls in Room to Read.

So many American efforts to influence foreign countries have misfired — not least here in Vietnam a generation ago. We launch missiles, dispatch troops, rent foreign puppets and spend billions without accomplishing much. In contrast, schooling is cheap and revolutionary. The more money we spend on schools today, the less we’ll have to spend on missiles tomorrow.

Wood, 47, is tireless, enthusiastic and emotional: a motivational speaker with no off button. He teared up as girls described how Room to Read had transformed their lives.

“If you can change a girl’s life forever, and the cost is so low, then why are there so many girls still out of school?” he mused.

The humanitarian world is mostly awful at messaging, and Room to Read’s success is partly a result of his professional background in marketing. Wood wrote a terrific book, “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World,” to spread the word, and Room to Read now has fund-raising chapters in 53 cities around the world.

He also runs Room to Read with an aggressive businesslike efficiency that he learned at Microsoft, attacking illiteracy as if it were Netscape. He tells supporters that they aren’t donating to charity but making an investment: Where can you get more bang for the buck than starting a library for $5,000?

“I get frustrated that there are 793 million illiterate people, when the solution is so inexpensive,” Wood told me outside one of his libraries in the Mekong. “If we provide this, it’s no guarantee that every child will take advantage of it. But if we don’t provide it, we pretty much guarantee that we perpetuate poverty.”

“In 20 years,” Wood told me, “I’d like to have 100,000 libraries, reaching 50 million kids. Our 50-year goal is to reverse the notion that any child can be told ‘you were born in the wrong place at the wrong time and so you will not get educated.’ That idea belongs on the scrapheap of human history.”

Finally, here’s Mr. Bruni:

If you’re just catching up on last week’s news, I suggest you sit down. Fast. What you’re about to learn is incredible. Unthinkable. If you drink, grab one. Certain shocks can’t be borne without absorbers.

Kim Kardashian is getting divorced. You read that right. It turns out that the nation’s poster girl for old-fashioned virtues — our little Kimmykins of Sunnybrook Farm — brought something less than steadfast and humble commitment to her marriage, which unraveled only 72 days after a ceremony bathed in klieg lights, lousy with product placements and underwritten with a reported multimillion-dollar payment (which her family has vaguely denied) for television rights. Of course none of that casts doubt on her good intentions. So it’s a real stunner, this rapid and bitter end. A nation reels.

That’s not all. There has been trouble with the Congressional super committee. This group is supposed to slash-slash-slash at the federal deficit like Edward Scissorhands working over a block of ice, but apparently its 12 members have been frozen at the block-of-ice stage. Deadlock. Extension. Before an end-of-week glimmer of hope from John Boehner, these were the words being thrown around in news reports and conversations with an aghast air. Who’d have thought that the Republicans could be so opposed to taxes? Or that Democrats would cry foul? That’s a script utterly without precedent.

If ever you needed an example of how easily, spuriously or conveniently we gin up our outrage, last week was it. As we kept up with Kardashian, kept tabs on a constipated Congress and beheld both the turmoil in Greece and the travails of Herman Cain, we summoned astonishment where there was questionable grounds for it and an ire sometimes out of proportion with the circumstances. So did the players in a few of these dramas and the parasites feeding off them. It was a mad, mad week.

Cain dominated it, to an icky extent, because the overriding farce and inevitable demise of his candidacy make all the attention to it feel diversionary, theatrical, opportunistic. This isn’t the media’s finest hour.

The focus of late has been on charges of sexual harassment against him when he headed the National Restaurant Association in the late 1990s. If they prove indisputably true he’s a boor, a bully and maybe a bit of a predator: three more reasons he shouldn’t be president. But we didn’t need them. We had at least 999 already.

That sometimes got lost in the discussion, as did the sad prevalence of men in high places seeking to take sexual advantage of subordinates, or at least behaving insensitively. If Cain is among them, it’s certainly relevant to his fitness for office. But it’s hardly revelatory.

Nor were his shifting accounts of what happened or the possibility that a rival campaign planted the story. Accused people panic, hedge and bumble; political operatives play dirty. The events of last week merely affirmed that and didn’t warrant quite so much breathlessness, some of it from Cain and his chief of staff, Mark Block, who were simply appalled — appalled, I tell you — at reporters’ relentlessness and enemies’ determination. Really? If that reaction was genuine, then we’re missing the biggest Cain story of all. He and his deputies have spent their lives until recently on Mars.

Last week there was horror at the heft and 24-carat shine of the golden parachute Jon Corzine had tried to arrange for himself, though that was considerably less anomalous than a destructive snowstorm before Halloween. In a criminal court in Los Angeles, there was continued stupefaction at the unorthodox ministrations of Michael Jackson’s doctor. Wasn’t everything about Jackson unorthodox? Freaky, even? Alas, to concentrate on that would be to dilute the thrilling outrage over his denouement.

Greece once again seemed to hold the world’s financial health in its hands, and so there was fresh scrutiny of how it got itself, and the rest of us, into this mess. The gist: those Mediterranean ne’er-do-wells behaved gluttonously and unforgivably. They racked up mountains of debt — unlike anyone on this side of the Atlantic! They coddled themselves with a lavish social welfare state — unheard of in Western Europe!

The Greek tragedy is one of degree, and the Greeks are magnified versions of the rest of us, paying a magnified price. To cast them as villainous outliers may be cathartic, but it isn’t honest or entirely just.

Honest. Just. Such lofty adjectives all but demand a pivot back to Kardashian. For those of you unfamiliar with her rise to renown, here’s a crash course: naked in a sex video leaked in 2007; naked in a 2007 issue of Playboy; a reality show; another reality show; a friendship with Paris Hilton; a cupcake flavor in her honor named Va-Va-Va-Nilla; clothes for Sears called the Kardashian Kollection; a book titled “Kardashian Konfidential.” She really knows how to work a konsonant.

Beyond that her talents are ambiguous. Like other celebrities famous for being famous, she means nothing and can thus mean everything, an empty vessel accommodating all manner of observations, a malleable moral for many stories.

In the wake of her separation announcement I watched Facebook light up with comments from gay people saying she had provided an inadvertent argument for same-sex marriage, because the institution couldn’t be treated with any more disrespect than she, an avowed heterosexual, had shown it. I got a widely circulated pitch from a publicist hawking a “national expert on the psychology of relationships” who could address the impact of Kardashian’s divorce on “the legions of younger generations that are following this and view Kim as a role model.” Legions? Role model? Oh please.

A branding expert prattled on CNN about the tricky maintenance of a lifestyle brand like Kardashian’s. A professor at the University of Southern California opined in The Wall Street Journal about “how much the marketing universe of the Kardashians has in common with the real art world,” comparing her to the artist Jeff Koons. And star-struck magazines and so-called news shows gasped: was it possible the wedding had been a sham?

Amazingly, Kardashian herself, usually so publicity-shy, spoke up: “I would never marry for a TV show, for money, for anything like that. And I think that’s really ridiculous, that I have to even, you know, kind of defend that, but, you know, I guess that comes along with what’s, you know — when you film your wedding for a reality show.”

She sounded outraged. You know?

He can really be a waste of pixels.  You know?  Also.  Too.

Kristol, Cohen and Krugman

January 26, 2009

Bloody Billy Kristol, of PNAC infamy, has now turned his attention to the future of liberalism.  In “Will Obama Save Liberalism?” he says liberalism’s fate rests on our new president’s shoulders. If Mr. Obama governs successfully, we’re in a new political era. If not, the country will be open to new conservative alternatives.  Finally the Times seems to have seen the error of its ways, and has printed these welcome words:  “This is William Kristol’s last column.”  I don’t care if it’s Monday — it’s a great day!  Mr. Cohen is “Remembering Germany.”  He says America’s once strong alliance with Germany has soured. The new administration should rekindle this relationship, which is essential to turning the global economy around.  I’d say the odds are good that President Obama won’t get all creepy-touchy-feely with Chancellor Merkel, so that’s a step in the right direction already.  Mr. Krugman writes about “Bad Faith Economics.”  He says cheap shots don’t pose as much danger to the Obama administration’s efforts to get a stimulus plan through as fraudulent arguments that seem superficially plausible.  Here’s the last column we’ll have to suffer through from that human abscess Kristol:

All good things must come to an end. Jan. 20, 2009, marked the end of a conservative era.

Since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, conservatives of various sorts, and conservatisms of various stripes, have generally been in the ascendancy. And a good thing, too! Conservatives have been right more often than not — and more often than liberals — about most of the important issues of the day: about Communism and jihadism, crime and welfare, education and the family. Conservative policies have on the whole worked — insofar as any set of policies can be said to “work” in the real world. Conservatives of the Reagan-Bush-Gingrich-Bush years have a fair amount to be proud of.

They also have some regrets. They’ll have time to ponder those as liberals now take their chance to govern.

Lest conservatives be too proud, it’s worth recalling that conservatism’s rise was decisively enabled by liberalism’s weakness. That weakness was manifested by liberalism’s limp reaction to the challenge from the New Left in the 1960s, became more broadly evident during the 1970s, and culminated in the fecklessness of the Carter administration at the end of that decade.

In 1978, the Harvard political philosopher Harvey Mansfield diagnosed the malady: “From having been the aggressive doctrine of vigorous, spirited men, liberalism has become hardly more than a trembling in the presence of illiberalism. … Who today is called a liberal for strength and confidence in defense of liberty?”

Over the next three decades, it was modern conservatism, led at the crucial moment by Ronald Reagan, that assumed the task of defending liberty with strength and confidence. Can a revived liberalism, faced with a new set of challenges, now pick up that mantle?

The answer lies in the hands of one man: the 44th president. If Reagan’s policies had failed, or if he hadn’t been politically successful, the conservative ascendancy would have been nipped in the bud. So with President Obama today. Liberalism’s fate rests to an astonishing degree on his shoulders. If he governs successfully, we’re in a new political era. If not, the country will be open to new conservative alternatives.

We don’t really know how Barack Obama will govern. What we have so far, mainly, is an Inaugural Address, and it suggests that he may have learned more from Reagan than he has sometimes let on. Obama’s speech was unabashedly pro-American and implicitly conservative.

Obama appealed to the authority of “our forebears,” “our founding documents,” even — political correctness alert! — “our founding fathers.” He emphasized that “we will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense.” He spoke almost not at all about rights (he had one mention of “the rights of man,” paired with “the rule of law” in the context of a discussion of the Constitution). He called for “a new era of responsibility.”

And he appealed to “the father of our nation,” who, before leading his army across the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776, allegedly “ordered these words be read to the people: ‘Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.’”

For some reason, Obama didn’t identify the author of “these timeless words” — the only words quoted in the entire speech. He’s Thomas Paine, and the passage comes from the first in his series of Revolutionary War tracts, “The Crisis.” Obama chose to cloak his quotation from the sometimes intemperate Paine in the authority of the respectable George Washington.

Sixty-seven years ago, a couple of months after Pearl Harbor, at the close of a long radio address on the difficult course of the struggle we had just entered upon, another liberal president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also told the story of Washington ordering that “The Crisis” be read aloud, and also quoted Paine. But he turned to the more famous — and more stirring — passage with which Paine begins his essay:

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

That exhortation was appropriate for World War II. Today, the dangers are less stark, and the conflicts less hard. Still, there will be trying times during Obama’s presidency, and liberty will need staunch defenders. Can Obama reshape liberalism to be, as it was under F.D.R., a fighting faith, unapologetically patriotic and strong in the defense of liberty? That would be a service to our country.

Don’t let the door hit you on the butt on the way out, jackass.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

When my thoughts turn to wreckage, and there’s a lot of it about these days, I tend to think of Germany’s “Stunde null,” or zero hour, the moment in 1945 when a once powerful nation faced its utter moral and material bankruptcy, the rubble of its collective suicide.

No doubt that’s because I lived in Berlin in the 1990s, at the time when the capital returned there from Bonn and a reunited Germany felt confident enough to face the ghosts of its darkest hours. Berlin was still raw, its past present at every turn, and so the miracle of Germany’s post-war recovery was palpable.

A country in disgrace had fast-forwarded from ruin to peace and prosperity.

That miracle, of course, was in large measure a German-American achievement, from Marshall Plan reconstruction, through West Germany’s insertion into NATO, culminating with the astute U.S. diplomacy that allowed the country’s unification within the Western alliance.

It’s easy to forget these days that solving “the German question” took much of the 20th century. It’s also easy to forget that the U.S. embassy in Bonn was once America’s largest in the world, comparable, with its thousands of staff, to the Baghdad embassy today.

What a difference a couple of decades make. The U.S. alliance with Germany has soured. Donald Rumsfeld’s comparison of the country to Libya was a low point illustrating how differences over Iraq poisoned a relationship already complicated by the disappearance of its strategic imperative.

Things have looked up a bit since then, but not a lot. The Germans still feel a little like jilted lovers. Many Americans have a vague notion of an ungrateful nation that’s gone soft and smug. It’s safe to say President Obama, his campaign speech in Berlin notwithstanding, does not have Germany high on his “to do” list.

That’s a pity. Germany is important to the United States right now. It’s time to rekindle a dormant relationship. While America is not at “Stunde null,” it’s at a moment of disarray when it has to rethink the nature and exercise of its power. Germany knows all about reinvention. It can help in four important areas: Europe, the economy, Iran and Afghanistan.

A strong Europe is essential to America’s recovery. The United States is too stretched — militarily and economically — to do without the cohesion of its closest allies.

There are three major European powers: Britain, France and Germany. Britain is going through a meltdown so severe that the joke there is that the country’s the next Iceland. That aside, its European credentials are always a little suspect.

In France, the notion of the European Union as a “counterweight” to American power still lurks, although President Nicolas Sarkozy has done much to dispose of such Gallic intellectual baggage.

Only in Germany is a powerful commitment to the strength and effectiveness of the European Union matched by an equally powerful conviction that the trans-Atlantic relationship remains critical.

Through Germany, Obama should press the urgent need for the 27-nation E.U. to complete reforms that will give it a president and foreign minister with terms long enough to count. Germany, Europe’s largest economy and the world’s largest exporter, must also be a pivot of post-crash reforms.

The recession is severe in Germany, but the country still has a savings ratio of 11 percent (it’s negative in the United States), a strong manufacturing sector and, after spending a staggering $1.8 trillion to integrate the Communist East, it has managed to get its budget close to balance.

Hence its much-criticized hesitation to join the socialist bandwagon (the Chinese are now referring to the U.S. economy as “socialism with American characteristics”) and pump billions into salvage operations. But Germany has now come through with a $110 billion stimulus package.

It is an essential American ally in turning the global economy around; expanding the G-8 to reflect today’s realities by including at least Brazil, Mexico, India, China, South Africa and Indonesia; and pushing through global financial reforms to be discussed in London in April that should include minimum capital ratios for banks and measures to ensure risk and responsibility get enduringly reacquainted with each other.

In Iran, Germany has broad experience of negotiation in recent years, along with Britain and France. That experience has led to some important German convictions: that American leadership under Obama is essential; that no deal will work without a regional security arrangement that only the United States can underwrite and that must (at least tacitly) acknowledge the Israeli bomb; and that new avenues have to be found to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, because only he counts.

With 3,500 troops in Afghanistan, set to rise to 4,500 this year, Germany has the third-largest troop presence there. It has been a strong advocate of some measures — including treating Pakistan and Afghanistan as a single theater and concentrating on corruption-eliminating government reform — now finding favor in Washington. Another reason to think Berlin.

A good start would be naming a vigorous, German-speaking ambassador to Berlin. The post is vacant. It shouldn’t be for long.

And now here’s Mr. Krugman:

As the debate over President Obama’s economic stimulus plan gets under way, one thing is certain: many of the plan’s opponents aren’t arguing in good faith. Conservatives really, really don’t want to see a second New Deal, and they certainly don’t want to see government activism vindicated. So they are reaching for any stick they can find with which to beat proposals for increased government spending.

Some of these arguments are obvious cheap shots. John Boehner, the House minority leader, has already made headlines with one such shot: looking at an $825 billion plan to rebuild infrastructure, sustain essential services and more, he derided a minor provision that would expand Medicaid family-planning services — and called it a plan to “spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives.”

But the obvious cheap shots don’t pose as much danger to the Obama administration’s efforts to get a plan through as arguments and assertions that are equally fraudulent but can seem superficially plausible to those who don’t know their way around economic concepts and numbers. So as a public service, let me try to debunk some of the major antistimulus arguments that have already surfaced. Any time you hear someone reciting one of these arguments, write him or her off as a dishonest flack.

First, there’s the bogus talking point that the Obama plan will cost $275,000 per job created. Why is it bogus? Because it involves taking the cost of a plan that will extend over several years, creating millions of jobs each year, and dividing it by the jobs created in just one of those years.

It’s as if an opponent of the school lunch program were to take an estimate of the cost of that program over the next five years, then divide it by the number of lunches provided in just one of those years, and assert that the program was hugely wasteful, because it cost $13 per lunch. (The actual cost of a free school lunch, by the way, is $2.57.)

The true cost per job of the Obama plan will probably be closer to $100,000 than $275,000 — and the net cost will be as little as $60,000 once you take into account the fact that a stronger economy means higher tax receipts.

Next, write off anyone who asserts that it’s always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money.

Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.

The point is that nobody really believes that a dollar of tax cuts is always better than a dollar of public spending. Meanwhile, it’s clear that when it comes to economic stimulus, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts — and therefore costs less per job created (see the previous fraudulent argument) — because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved.

This suggests that public spending rather than tax cuts should be the core of any stimulus plan. But rather than accept that implication, conservatives take refuge in a nonsensical argument against public spending in general.

Finally, ignore anyone who tries to make something of the fact that the new administration’s chief economic adviser has in the past favored monetary policy over fiscal policy as a response to recessions.

It’s true that the normal response to recessions is interest-rate cuts from the Fed, not government spending. And that might be the best option right now, if it were available. But it isn’t, because we’re in a situation not seen since the 1930s: the interest rates the Fed controls are already effectively at zero.

That’s why we’re talking about large-scale fiscal stimulus: it’s what’s left in the policy arsenal now that the Fed has shot its bolt. Anyone who cites old arguments against fiscal stimulus without mentioning that either doesn’t know much about the subject — and therefore has no business weighing in on the debate — or is being deliberately obtuse.

These are only some of the fundamentally fraudulent antistimulus arguments out there. Basically, conservatives are throwing any objection they can think of against the Obama plan, hoping that something will stick.

But here’s the thing: Most Americans aren’t listening. The most encouraging thing I’ve heard lately is Mr. Obama’s reported response to Republican objections to a spending-oriented economic plan: “I won.” Indeed he did — and he should disregard the huffing and puffing of those who lost.

Hear, hear!

Kristol, Cohen and Krugman

January 19, 2009

That bloodthirsty festering boil on the ass of humanity Bloody Billy Kristol has excreted a thing called “The Next War President.”  He says like President Bush before him, Barack Obama knows he, too, will be a war president and that the decisions he makes as commander in chief will be his most consequential.  Bouncing rubble gives Bloody Billy a woody…  Mr. Cohen gives us “Start the Fire,” a tribute to President-elect Barack Obama, with apologies to Billy Joel.  Mr. Krugman discusses “Wall Street Voodoo,” and how many influential people in Washington seem to believe that by performing elaborate financial rituals we can keep dead banks walking.  Here’s that pilonidal cyst Kristol:

In synagogue on Saturday, before saying the customary prayer for our country, the rabbi asked us to reflect on the fact that a new president would be inaugurated on Tuesday, and urged us to focus a little more intently than usual on the prayer. The congregants did so, it seemed to me, as we read, “Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask your blessings for our country — for its government, for its leaders and advisers, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority …”

Barack Obama will assume that just and rightful authority at noon on Tuesday. After a dinner with him that I attended last week, as we said our goodbyes, I overheard one of my fellow conservatives say softly to the president-elect, “Sir, I’ll be praying for you.” Obama seemed to pause as they shook hands, and to thank him more earnestly than he did those of us who simply — and sincerely — wished him well.

The incoming president is the man of the moment. He deserves good wishes and sincere prayers. But I’ve found myself thinking these last few days more about the man who has shouldered the burdens of office for the past eight years, George W. Bush.

He wasn’t my favorite among Republicans in 2000. He has made mistakes as president, and has limitations as a leader. But he has exercised his just and rightful authority in a way — I believe — that deserves recognition and respect.

It will probably be a while before he gets much of either. In synagogue, right after the prayer for our country, there is a prayer for the state of Israel, asking the “rock and redeemer of the people Israel” to “spread over it the shelter of your peace.” As we recited this on Saturday, I couldn’t help but reflect that a distressingly small number of my fellow Jews seem to have given much thought at all to the fact that President Bush is one of the greatest friends the state of Israel — and, yes, the Jewish people — have had in quite a while. Bush stood with Israel when he had no political incentive to do so and received no political benefit from doing so. He was criticized by much of the world. He did it because he thought it the right thing to do.

He has been denounced for this, as Israel has been denounced for doing what it judged necessary to defend itself. The liberal sage Bill Moyers has been a harsh critic of Bush. On Jan. 9, on PBS, he also lambasted Israel for what he called its “state terrorism,” its “waging war on an entire population” in Gaza. He traced this Israeli policy back to the Bible, where “God-soaked violence became genetically coded,” apparently in both Arabs and Jews. I wouldn’t presume to say what is and isn’t “genetically coded” in Moyers’s respectable Protestant genes. But I’m glad it was George W. Bush calling the shots over the last eight years, not someone well-thought of by Moyers.

Many of Bush’s defenders have praised him for keeping the country safe since Sept. 11, 2001. He deserves that praise, and I’m perfectly happy to defend most of his surveillance, interrogation and counterterrorism policies against his critics.

But I don’t think keeping us safe has been Bush’s most impressive achievement. That was winning the war in Iraq, and in particular, his refusal to accept defeat when so many counseled him to do so in late 2006. His ordering the surge of troops to Iraq in January 2007 was an act of personal courage and of presidential leadership. The results have benefited both Iraq and the United States. And the outcome in Iraq is a remarkable gift to the incoming president, who now only has to sustain success, rather than trying to deal with the consequences in the region and around the world of a humiliating withdrawal and a devastating defeat.

The cost of the war in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, has been great. Last Wednesday afternoon, in the midst of all the other activities of the final week of an administration, Bush had 40 or so families of fallen soldiers to the White House. The staff had set aside up to two hours. Bush, a man who normally keeps to schedule, spent over four hours meeting in small groups with the family members of those who had fallen in battle.

This past weekend Barack Obama added to his itinerary a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. Obama knows that he, too, will be a war president. He knows the decisions he makes as commander in chief will be his most consequential. And so on Sunday morning, before going to church, he placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and stood silently as taps was sounded. The somber tableau provided quite a contrast to all the hubbub and talk of the last few days. Obama’s silent tribute captured a deeper truth, and — I dare say — a more fundamental hope, than could any speech.

Here’s Mr. Cohen, to get the the taste of Kristol out of our mouths:

With apologies to Billy Joel, who’s more of a chronologist, and in tribute to a president, Barack Hussein Obama, representing a new post-cold-war generation of 21st-century Americans.

We Didn’t Start the Fire (2)

Bill Clinton, Tina Fey, capitalist China, O.J.,

Asia rising, Facebook, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ugg boots, Seinfeld

West Bank, Gaza City, Tupac Amaru Shakur

Mohamed Atta, W.M.D., Harry Potter, Reality TV

Tom Cruise, American Beauty, MP3, Oprah Winfrey

Schwarzenegger, YouTube, America’s got organic food

Armstrong, blogosphere, Monica Lewinsky

We didn’t start the fire

It was always burning

Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire

No we didn’t light it

But we tried to fight it

Vlad Putin, Medvedev, Assad, Posh-and-Becks

The West Wing, Y2K, massacre in Falluja

Britney Spears, Spike Lee, Kurt Cobain, Sarkozy

Mia Hamm, Heath Ledger, Viagra, Napster

Lindsay Lohan, skinny jeans, Boston’s got a winning team

Lehman Brothers, A.I.G., subprime, Ponzi scheme

Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, and a billion poor,

Tehran, Hezbollah, trouble with the jihadis

We didn’t start the fire

It was always burning

Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire

No we didn’t light it

But we tried to fight it

New Orleans, Bolaño, Sarah Palin no-go

TiVo, Hu Jintao, and the vegan-eco crowd

Tony Blair, Paris Hilton, Princess Di, Bin Laden

Pyongyang, the renditions gang, Roger Clemens in a cloud

ACT UP, Infinite Jest, O.J. Part Two, Johnny Depp

iPhones, Federer, Who Let the Dogs Out?

Halle Berry, cloned Dolly, and another Kennedy

Jon Stewart, American Psycho, tsunami, Danger Mouse

We didn’t start the fire

It was always burning

Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire

No we didn’t light it

But we tried to fight it

Sedaris, Unabomber, Girls Gone Wild, Nasrallah

Jay-Z, Shanghai, shock and awe in Baghdad

Amy Winehouse, Imus, gases of the greenhouse

Kelly Ripa, Maureen Dowd, Ted Williams gone mad

Outsourcing, Mumbai, so many didn’t have to die

David Blaine, human rights, and Napoleon Dynamite

Mandela, Madonna’s ex, abstinence, safe sex

Rabin blown away, what else do I have to say?

We didn’t start the fire

It was always burning

Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire

No we didn’t light it

But we tried to fight it

BlackBerry, global mall, Hillary Clinton standing tall

Tiger Woods, Barry Bonds, MySpace, The Corrections

Rushdie, Starbucks, Channel Tunnel, Spurlock

American Idol, Black Hawk Down, Miracle on the Hudson

Sopranos, Cougars, Da Vinci Code, life on Mars

Saddam hung, Mugabe, traumatic stress, mission creep

Social networks, match.com, iChat, Amazon,

Terror cells, endless war, I can’t take it anymore

We didn’t start the fire

It was always burning

Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire

No we didn’t light it

But we tried to fight it

Hawaii, Kenya, Kansas and Jakarta

Harvard, finding God, social work, Axelrod

Red state, blue state, unity can no longer wait,

A time to reap, a time to sow, we will close Guantánamo

Iowa, Yes We Can, McCain was just an also-ran

I Have a Dream, Bush out, a black man in the White House

We didn’t start the fire

It was always burning

Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire

No we didn’t light it

But we tried to fight it

We didn’t start the fire

It was always burning

Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire …

(Sorry about the spacing, blame the NYT.)  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Old-fashioned voodoo economics — the belief in tax-cut magic — has been banished from civilized discourse. The supply-side cult has shrunk to the point that it contains only cranks, charlatans, and Republicans.

But recent news reports suggest that many influential people, including Federal Reserve officials, bank regulators, and, possibly, members of the incoming Obama administration, have become devotees of a new kind of voodoo: the belief that by performing elaborate financial rituals we can keep dead banks walking.

To explain the issue, let me describe the position of a hypothetical bank that I’ll call Gothamgroup, or Gotham for short.

On paper, Gotham has $2 trillion in assets and $1.9 trillion in liabilities, so that it has a net worth of $100 billion. But a substantial fraction of its assets — say, $400 billion worth — are mortgage-backed securities and other toxic waste. If the bank tried to sell these assets, it would get no more than $200 billion.

So Gotham is a zombie bank: it’s still operating, but the reality is that it has already gone bust. Its stock isn’t totally worthless — it still has a market capitalization of $20 billion — but that value is entirely based on the hope that shareholders will be rescued by a government bailout.

Why would the government bail Gotham out? Because it plays a central role in the financial system. When Lehman was allowed to fail, financial markets froze, and for a few weeks the world economy teetered on the edge of collapse. Since we don’t want a repeat performance, Gotham has to be kept functioning. But how can that be done?

Well, the government could simply give Gotham a couple of hundred billion dollars, enough to make it solvent again. But this would, of course, be a huge gift to Gotham’s current shareholders — and it would also encourage excessive risk-taking in the future. Still, the possibility of such a gift is what’s now supporting Gotham’s stock price.

A better approach would be to do what the government did with zombie savings and loans at the end of the 1980s: it seized the defunct banks, cleaning out the shareholders. Then it transferred their bad assets to a special institution, the Resolution Trust Corporation; paid off enough of the banks’ debts to make them solvent; and sold the fixed-up banks to new owners.

The current buzz suggests, however, that policy makers aren’t willing to take either of these approaches. Instead, they’re reportedly gravitating toward a compromise approach: moving toxic waste from private banks’ balance sheets to a publicly owned “bad bank” or “aggregator bank” that would resemble the Resolution Trust Corporation, but without seizing the banks first.

Sheila Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, recently tried to describe how this would work: “The aggregator bank would buy the assets at fair value.” But what does “fair value” mean?

In my example, Gothamgroup is insolvent because the alleged $400 billion of toxic waste on its books is actually worth only $200 billion. The only way a government purchase of that toxic waste can make Gotham solvent again is if the government pays much more than private buyers are willing to offer.

Now, maybe private buyers aren’t willing to pay what toxic waste is really worth: “We don’t have really any rational pricing right now for some of these asset categories,” Ms. Bair says. But should the government be in the business of declaring that it knows better than the market what assets are worth? And is it really likely that paying “fair value,” whatever that means, would be enough to make Gotham solvent again?

What I suspect is that policy makers — possibly without realizing it — are gearing up to attempt a bait-and-switch: a policy that looks like the cleanup of the savings and loans, but in practice amounts to making huge gifts to bank shareholders at taxpayer expense, disguised as “fair value” purchases of toxic assets.

Why go through these contortions? The answer seems to be that Washington remains deathly afraid of the N-word — nationalization. The truth is that Gothamgroup and its sister institutions are already wards of the state, utterly dependent on taxpayer support; but nobody wants to recognize that fact and implement the obvious solution: an explicit, though temporary, government takeover. Hence the popularity of the new voodoo, which claims, as I said, that elaborate financial rituals can reanimate dead banks.

Unfortunately, the price of this retreat into superstition may be high. I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that taxpayers are about to get another raw deal — and that we’re about to get another financial rescue plan that fails to do the job.


Kristol, Cohen and Krugman

January 12, 2009

Bloody Billy gives us “Continuity We Can Believe In,” in which he says it seems that we can expect more continuity than change from President-elect Barack Obama’s foreign policy.  He’s trying to make it sound as though soon-to-be-President Obama agrees with Dick Cheney…  Mr. Cohen, in “Mideast Dream Team? Not Quite,” says U.S. enlightenment about the Middle East will require a fresher, broader team than Barack Obama is contemplating.  Prof. Krugman has “Ideas for Obama.”  He says President-elect Barack Obama’s economic plan falls well short of what’s needed. To fix it, he needs to stop talking about “jump-starts” and focus on long-term investment.  Judging from all the above, to say nothing of what else is in the MSM, I don’t see much of a “honeymoon” for the new administration.  Here’s that disgusting creature Kristol:

Barack Obama made news Sunday on ABC’s “This Week”: The White House dog will likely be a Labradoodle or a Portuguese water dog.

I’ve got to say I’m a little disappointed. These are nice, friendly, generally obedient breeds (or in the case of the Labradoodle, a crossbreed). But what a missed opportunity! Obama could have made a bolder, edgier choice, like a mini-Australian shepherd. I happen to know one well. He’s very smart, a bit neurotic, devoted to his master (if sometimes confused about whether he or the master is the master), and always looking for people to herd. A mini-Aussie would have fit right into a White House populated by Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers, Joe Biden et al. Instead, Obama’s going with a no-drama canine alternative.

And he seems to be going for the no-dramatic-change-in-policy-in-the-White-House alternative as well. Consider Obama’s reaction when George Stephanopoulos played a clip of Dick Cheney counseling Obama not to implement his campaign rhetoric until he’s fully briefed on the details of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policy.

“I think that was pretty good advice, which is I should know what’s going on before we make judgments and that we shouldn’t be making judgments on the basis of incomplete information or campaign rhetoric. So I’ve got no quibble with that particular quote,” said Obama. Usually, presidents pretend their campaign positions are more than “campaign rhetoric.” Not Obama.

Obama did note that he differs with Cheney on “some things that we know happened,” including waterboarding. And he did reiterate his pledge to close Guantánamo. But he warned that it was “more difficult than I think a lot of people realize,” explaining that while he was committed to the rule of law, he wasn’t interested “in releasing people who are intent on blowing us up.”

And at one point he returned, unbidden, to the much-maligned vice president, commenting, “I thought that Dick Cheney’s advice was good.”

Perhaps the president-elect was just being polite. Or perhaps he just enjoys torturing (metaphorically!) some of his previously most ardent supporters who want Dick Cheney tried as a war criminal.

In fact, Stephanopoulos asked about that. He pointed to a popular question on Obama’s Web site about whether he’ll appoint a special prosecutor to investigate “the greatest crimes of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping.” Obama stipulated that no one should be above the law. But he praised C.I.A. employees, and said he didn’t want them “looking over their shoulders and lawyering.” He took the general view “that when it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future, as opposed to looking at what we got wrong in the past.”

With respect to the Middle East, Obama didn’t even say we’d gotten much wrong in the past. Asked by Stephanopoulos whether his policy would build on Bush’s or would be a clean break, Obama answered, “if you look not just at the Bush administration, but also what happened under the Clinton administration, you are seeing the general outlines of an approach.” So: No break.

Meanwhile, the Obama transition team’s chief national security spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson, was denying a press report that Obama’s advisers were urging him to initiate low-level or clandestine contacts with Hamas as a prelude to change in policy. Anderson told The Jerusalem Post that the story wasn’t accurate, and reminded one and all that Obama “has repeatedly stated that he believes that Hamas is a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction, and that we should not deal with them until they recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by past agreements.”

On Iran, Obama did say he’d be taking “a new approach,” that “engagement is the place to start” with “a new emphasis on being willing to talk.” But he also reminded Stephanopoulos that the Iranian regime is exporting terrorism through Hamas and Hezbollah and is “pursuing a nuclear weapon that could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.” He said his willingness to talk would be combined with “clarity about what our bottom lines are” — one of them presumably being, as he’s said before, no Iranian nuclear weapons. And he demonstrated a sense of urgency — “we anticipate that we’re going to have to move swiftly in that area.”

So: After talks with Iran (if they happen) fail to curb Iran’s nuclear program, but (perhaps) impress other nations with our good faith, we’ll presumably get greater international support for sanctions. That will also (unfortunately) fail to deter Iran. “Engagement is the place to start,” Obama said, but it’s not likely to be the place Obama ends. He’ll end up where Bush is — with the choice of using force or acquiescing to the idea of a nuclear Iran.

And he’ll probably be calling Dick Cheney for advice.

Here’s Mr. Cohen:

The Obama team is tight with information, but I’ve got the scoop on the senior advisers he’s gathered to push a new Middle East policy as the Gaza war rages: Shibley Telhami, Vali Nasr, Fawaz Gerges, Fouad Moughrabi and James Zogby.

This group of distinguished Arab-American and Iranian-American scholars, with wide regional experience, is intended to signal a U.S. willingness to think anew about the Middle East, with greater cultural sensitivity to both sides, and a keen eye on whether uncritical support for Israel has been helpful.

O.K., forget the above, I’ve let my imagination run away with me. Barack Obama has no plans for this line-up on the Israeli-Palestinian problem and Iran.

In fact, the people likely to play significant roles on the Middle East in the Obama Administration read rather differently.

They include Dennis Ross (the veteran Clinton administration Mideast peace envoy who may now extend his brief to Iran); James Steinberg (as deputy secretary of state); Dan Kurtzer (the former U.S. ambassador to Israel); Dan Shapiro (a longtime aide to Obama); and Martin Indyk (another former ambassador to Israel who is close to the incoming secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.)

Now, I have nothing against smart, driven, liberal, Jewish (or half-Jewish) males; I’ve looked in the mirror. I know or have talked to all these guys, except Shapiro. They’re knowledgeable, broad-minded and determined. Still, on the diversity front they fall short. On the change-you-can-believe-in front, they also leave something to be desired.

In an adulatory piece in Newsweek, Michael Hirsh wrote: “Ross’s previous experience as the indefatigable point man during the failed Oslo process, as well as the main negotiator with Syria, make him uniquely suited for a major renewal of U.S. policy on nearly every front.”

Really? I wonder about the capacity for “major renewal” of someone who has failed for so long.

“Do people in the region take note when Arab-Americans are not represented? Sure they do,” said Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. “A message gets sent.”

It’s important for Obama to get his message right from day one. With the Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya networks broadcasting 24-7 images of the carnage in Gaza, where there are more than 800 dead, mobilization in the Arab world is intense. Rage against Israel, and behind it America, bodes ill.

Change is needed, and not just in the intensity of U.S. diplomatic involvement with Israel-Palestine. Some fundamental questions must be asked.

Does regarding the Middle East almost exclusively through the prism of the war on terror make sense? Does turning a blind eye to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank that frustrate a two-state solution, and the Israeli blockade of Gaza that radicalizes its population, not undermine U.S. interest in bolstering moderate Palestinian sentiment?

Should policy not be directed toward reconciling a Palestinian movement now split between Fatah and Hamas, without which no final-status peace will be possible? Beyond their terrorist wings, in their broad grass-roots political movements, what elements of Hamas and Hezbollah can be coaxed toward the mainstream?

Do we understand the increasingly sophisticated Middle East of Al Jazeera where, as Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland, put it to me, “People are not dumb and our credibility is at a historic near-zero?”

Asking these questions does not alter America’s commitment to Israel’s security within its pre-1967 borders, which is and should be unwavering. It does not change the unacceptability of Hamas rockets or the fact the Hamas Charter is vile. But it would signal that the damaging Bush-era consensus that Israel can do no wrong is to be challenged.

I don’t feel encouraged — not by the putative Ross-redux team, nor by the nonbinding resolutions passed last week in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The former offered “unwavering commitment” to Israel. The latter recognized “Israel’s right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza.” Neither criticized Israel.

It seems that among liberal democracies, it is only in the U.S .Congress that a defense against terror that results in the slaying of hundreds of Palestinian children is not cause for agonized soul-searching. In my view, such Israeli “defense” has crossed the line.

“We are all opposed to terrorism,” Telhami said. “But how does that enlighten you about how to move forward?”

Enlightenment will require a fresher, broader Mideast team than Obama is contemplating. As noted in “Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East,” a fine evaluation of U.S. diplomacy by Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky, the lack of expertise on Islam and an Arab perspective was costly at Camp David. At one point, the State Department’s top Arabic translator had to be drafted because “the lack of cross-cultural negotiating skills was so acute.”

Obama should take note, name an Arab-American and an Iranian-American to prominent roles, and beware of a team that takes him — and the region — back to the future.

He said during the campaign that “an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel” can’t be “the measure of our friendship with Israel.” Those were words. Now, with Gaza blood flowing, come deeds.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Last week President-elect Barack Obama was asked to respond to critics who say that his stimulus plan won’t do enough to help the economy. Mr. Obama answered that he wants to hear ideas about “how to spend money efficiently and effectively to jump-start the economy.”

O.K., I’ll bite — although as I’ll explain shortly, the “jump-start” metaphor is part of the problem.

First, Mr. Obama should scrap his proposal for $150 billion in business tax cuts, which would do little to help the economy. Ideally he’d scrap the proposed $150 billion payroll tax cut as well, though I’m aware that it was a campaign promise.

Money not squandered on ineffective tax cuts could be used to provide further relief to Americans in distress — enhanced unemployment benefits, expanded Medicaid and more. And why not get an early start on the insurance subsidies — probably running at $100 billion or more per year — that will be essential if we’re going to achieve universal health care?

Mainly, though, Mr. Obama needs to make his plan bigger. To see why, consider a new report from his own economic team.

On Saturday, Christina Romer, the future head of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Jared Bernstein, who will be the vice president’s chief economist, released estimates of what the Obama economic plan would accomplish. Their report is reasonable and intellectually honest, which is a welcome change from the fuzzy math of the last eight years.

But the report also makes it clear that the plan falls well short of what the economy needs.

According to Ms. Romer and Mr. Bernstein, the Obama plan would have its maximum impact in the fourth quarter of 2010. Without the plan, they project, the unemployment rate in that quarter would be a disastrous 8.8 percent. Yet even with the plan, unemployment would be 7 percent — roughly as high as it is now.

After 2010, the report says, the effects of the economic plan would rapidly fade away. The job of promoting full recovery would, however, remain undone: the unemployment rate would still be a painful 6.3 percent in the last quarter of 2011.

Now, economic forecasting is an inexact science, to say the least, and things could turn out better than the report predicts. But they could also turn out worse. The report itself acknowledges that “some private forecasters anticipate unemployment rates as high as 11 percent in the absence of action.” And I’m with Lawrence Summers, another member of the Obama economic team, who recently declared, “In this crisis, doing too little poses a greater threat than doing too much.” Unfortunately, that principle isn’t reflected in the current plan.

So how can Mr. Obama do more? By including a lot more public investment in his plan — which will be possible if he takes a longer view.

The Romer-Bernstein report acknowledges that “a dollar of infrastructure spending is more effective in creating jobs than a dollar of tax cuts.” It argues, however, that “there is a limit on how much government investment can be carried out efficiently in a short time frame.” But why does the time frame have to be short?

As far as I can tell, Mr. Obama’s planners have focused on investment projects that will deliver their main jobs boost over the next two years. But since unemployment is likely to remain high well beyond that two-year window, the plan should also include longer-term investment projects.

And bear in mind that even a project that delivers its main punch in, say, 2011 can provide significant economic support in earlier years. If Mr. Obama drops the “jump-start” metaphor, if he accepts the reality that we need a multi-year program rather than a short burst of activity, he can create a lot more jobs through government investment, even in the near term.

Still, shouldn’t Mr. Obama wait for proof that a bigger, longer-term plan is needed? No. Right now the investment portion of the Obama plan is limited by a shortage of “shovel ready” projects, projects ready to go on short notice. A lot more investment can be under way by late 2010 or 2011 if Mr. Obama gives the go-ahead now — but if he waits too long before deciding, that window of opportunity will be gone.

One more thing: even with the Obama plan, the Romer-Bernstein report predicts an average unemployment rate of 7.3 percent over the next three years. That’s a scary number, big enough to pose a real risk that the U.S. economy will get stuck in a Japan-type deflationary trap.

So my advice to the Obama team is to scrap the business tax cuts, and, more important, to deal with the threat of doing too little by doing more. And the way to do more is to stop talking about jump-starts and look more broadly at the possibilities for government investment.

I wonder if Obama will ever do anything right?


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